Disappearance has many associations in China, most of them unpleasant. A disappeared critic of Beijing is presumed detained. A disappeared official is presumed disgraced. A disappeared businessman is presumed, well, doomed.
Jack Ma’s absence from public sight has fueled speculation of these sorts. But his nine-week-long silence was all but expected, analysts said, given that talking was partly what got the billionaire founder of Alibaba in trouble.
The flamboyant 56-year-old has not been seen in public since Chinese regulators halted a $37 billion initial public offering of Alibaba affiliate Ant Group in November, two days before trading was set to begin. The intervention spooked investors and raised questions over the ruling Communist Party’s support of the private business empires born out of China’s economic reforms.
“The Ant saga looks like a bog-standard row between a financial entrepreneur and the regulators,” George Magnus, an economist and research associate at Oxford University's China Centre, wrote in a column on TheArticle, “but it goes further, embracing the contradiction between financial innovation on the one hand, and control on the other.”
In the following weeks, Ma was summoned for talks by officials. Ant, which runs payment and microlending services, was told to comply with tightened regulations, which could slash its profit margins. Alibaba was subjected to an antitrust investigation, with officials descending on its offices to collect evidence.
The surprise scrutiny cut Alibaba’s stock prices in New York and Hong Kong by more than a quarter. Ma’s personal wealth has dropped from $61 billion in early November to $50 billion in January, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Ma, who resigned as chairman in 2019 but remains the public face of Alibaba, has responded to the crisis with silence, fueling speculation that he could meet the same fate as the Chinese billionaires who went missing in the past only to turn up in custody.
Since November, Ma has not made any comments to his 26 million followers on Weibo and 620,000 on Twitter. He gave no speeches. He was also replaced as a judge on Africa’s Business Heroes, a television contest held by Ma’s foundation to promote entrepreneurship in Africa.
Alibaba said Ma had to miss the show’s finale due to a schedule conflict.
This is uncharacteristic of Ma, who is known for his love for the limelight. Videos of him dancing to “Billie Jean” and singing with Canto-pop diva Faye Wong have been viewed millions of times.
Analysts say Ma has good reasons to switch to a low profile now, given that a daring speech he gave was believed to be a trigger of the crackdown. Days before Ant’s scheduled IPO, Ma publicly criticized Chinese financial regulators for stifling innovation and compared the traditional banks to “pawn shops.”
“It is totally expected that after a very controversial public appearance, someone would lie low for a while,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “You don’t want to be in the public eye when your company is in a very complicated political situation.”
Chorzempa said while Chinese authorities were long aware of the financial risks and anti-competition practices related to Alibaba’s products, the tech empire and Ma’s political influence has made it difficult for regulators to take actions.
“You can view this as a reversal of potential political protection,” he said. “That might mean that regulatory measures that make sense are able to be implemented.”
Once an idol to countless Chinese people who dream of making it big, the former English teacher is also facing a reversal in public opinion as economic reality has increasingly eclipsed his rags-to-riches story in the world’s second-biggest economy.
Alibaba’s shopping app Taobao has more than 800 million monthly active users in China, and about 500 million users have borrowed money from Ant’s payment app Alipay.
But despite providing services that many Chinese people cannot live without, Alibaba is increasingly viewed not as a company that serves users but one that is profiting at the expense of small businesses, consumers and employees.
Vaneun Jin, a 26-year-old writer in the Chinese island province of Hainan and regular user of Taobao, said he firmly supports the crackdown on Ma, mainly because of Ma’s endorsement of the “996” working culture.
996, which stands for “9am to 9pm, six days a week,” refers to the gruelling working hours prevalent in China’s tech industry. In 2019, Ma said in an internal talk that “996” was a “a huge blessing” that would allow young people to achieve success.
“I can’t deny that Alibaba has brought convenience to our life,” Jin said. “But if they use the convenience as leverage to exploit people, they should be controlled and even cracked down on.”
Matthew Brennan, a technology analyst based in China, said while many Chinese tech companies have faced pressure from regulators in the past, Ma’s controversial comments in the past had contributed to the more hostile public sentiment.
Ma’s generation made fortunes during China’s economic take-off, but today’s young Chinese are finding it much more difficult to move up the social ladder due the high home prices and a slowing economy, he said.
On Bilibili, a video streaming site popular with Chinese Gen-Z consumers, users have celebrated the antitrust investigation into Alibaba, calling it '“justice.” Taking delight in Ma’s misfortune, some commenters quoted the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!”
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter