The Chinese tech billionaire behind Asia’s version of Amazon has reportedly not been seen in public for more than two months after falling foul of President Xi Jinping.
Jack Ma, one of China’s most successful and outspoken tycoons, criticised the country’s ‘pawnshop’ financial regulators and state-owned banks in an incendiary speech in Shanghai in October.
He called for reform of a system that ‘stifled business innovation’ and likened global banking regulations to an ‘old people’s club’.
The speech angered the Chinese government, which viewed Ma’s criticisms as an attack on the authority of the Communist Party, and led to its extraordinary clampdown on Ma’s business activities.
In November, officials in Beijing ‘dressed down’ Ma and suspended the blockbuster $37billion initial public offering of his Ant Group on the direct order of President Xi, the Wall Street Journal reports.
They then advised Ma to remain in China before launching an anti-monopoly investigation into Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding on Christmas Eve, according to Bloomberg. Beijing also ordered Ma’s financial tech company Ant Group to scale back its operations.
Ma then mysteriously disappeared from his Dragons’ Den-style TV show Africa’s Business Heroes just before the November final, while his photo was scrubbed from the show’s judging panel webpage.
A spokesperson for Alibaba told the Financial Times that Ma could no longer be part of the judging panel ‘due to a schedule conflict’.
But weeks before the final, Ma tweeted that he ‘couldn’t wait’ to meet the contestants. There has been no activity since then on the father-of-three’s Twitter account, one that had regularly seen several tweets a day.
Beijing has a history of ruthless action against its internal critics and in March a property tycoon disappeared after he called President Xi a ‘clown’ for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Friends of Ren Zhiqiang said they could not contact him and six months later he was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he ‘voluntarily and truthfully confessed’ to various crimes of corruption.
Xian Jianhua, a billionaire financier, was snatched from a Hong Kong hotel in 2017 and taken to the mainland.
He is said to remain under house arrest more than three years later, with no official word of his location.
The anti-monopoly investigation caused Alibaba’s shares to drop by a quarter since their peak shortly after the October speech, wiping more than $10billion from Ma’s paper fortune.
It knocked Ma into third place on the list of China’s richest people, behind Pinduoduo chief executive Colin Huang and Tencent Holdings’ Pony Ma Huateng.
Ma now has an estimated current net worth of $63.1billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
On Wednesday, shares of Nasdaq-listed Pinduoduo rose 7.77 per cent in New York, lifting its market capitalisation to nearly $220billion.
It marked the second day in a row that the five-year-old start-up passed the $200billion mark in value.
Huang’s wealth in China is now behind only Zhong Shanshan, the chairman of bottled water giant Nongfu Spring that recently completed a record-breaking $87billion Hong Kong IPO in September.
The fate of the country’s largest e-commerce, delivery and social media platforms has been in limbo since Beijing drafted a document to crackdown on the ‘platform economy’ in early November.
Despite being one of China’s most successful businessmen, Mr. Ma has increasingly clashed with the regime over his preferences for a more open and market-driven economy. There is no suggestion so far that he has come to physical harm.
Until recently he had been a leading light of China’s unique approach to generating wealth by unleashing market forces within a tightly-controlled communist framework.
The English-teacher-turned-business-magnate commanded near-rock star status and even played an unconquerable Kung Fu master in a star-studded 2017 film.
And even while tensions between the US and China were deepening, Mr. Ma was able to extend an olive branch by donating 2,000 ventilators to New York with his right-hand man Joe Tsai, prompting a ‘thank you’ from Donald Trump.
But the stock market launch of Ma’s payments firm Ant was scuppered by regulators in what many saw as a retaliatory move for his explosive speech in Shanghai in October.
Since then, regulators have met with executives from Ant and ordered it to improve its corporate governance, its compliance with regulation and its habit of using its size to push competitors out of the market.
In the process Mr. Ma, who is married to Cathy Zhang, 55, has completely disappeared from public view – a sudden change all the more remarkable given his previously huge public profile.