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Chinese billionaire Jack Ma vanishes: What happened?

Anastasia Santoreneos
·3-min read
Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma attends the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 5, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Chinese billionaire Jack Ma vanishes: What happened? Source: Getty

Mystery surrounds Chinese billionaire and Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s whereabouts, after he missed an appearance on a TV talent show he founded back in November, and hasn’t been seen since.

An Alibaba spokesperson told the Financial Times that Ma was unable to take part on the judging panel due to a scheduling conflict, but the billionaire’s silence has interesting timing.

Who is Jack Ma?

Jack Ma is the founder of tech giant Alibaba, and is worth an estimated US$51 billion (AU$66.4 billion).

He also founded Ant Group, formerly known as Ant Financial and Alipay, an affiliate company of the Alibaba Group. Alipay is China’s largest digital payments platform.

But it’s Ma’s rags-to-riches back story that has shot him to fame: he was a broke English teacher until someone showed him the internet on a trip to the US in the 1990s.

In 1999, he convinced his friends to give him US$60,000 to start a new business in China, and Alibaba was born from his bedroom in Hangzhou, starting a retail revolution with it.

After appearing in movies, performing on stage donning a rockstar costume and speaking at countless conferences, he’s seen as China’s flamboyant poster boy for tech.

Why is Jack Ma suspected missing?

At the Bund Summit in Shanghai on 24 October, Ma criticised the lawmakers that enforce global financial regulations, the Basel Accords, saying they were like “an old people’s club”.

According to The Times, Ma, a Communist Party member, said: “The Basel Accords are like an old people’s club… we can’t use yesterday’s methods to regulate the future”.

The billionaire said the Basel Accords framework stifled opportunities for young people and developing nations, and that regulatory rules suppressed innovation.

Before the summit, Ant Group was preparing for a US$37 billion initial public offering (IPO), and would have valued the company at more than US$300 billion.

The IPO would have boosted Ma’s net worth even further, and cemented his position as the nation’s richest man.

After the summit, things changed.

China cracked down on regulations, smothering Ant Group’s IPO and triggered a US$140 billion (17 per cent) decline in the market value of Ma’s Alibaba.’

The Shanghai Stock Exchange said Ant had reported “significant issues such as the changes in financial technology regulatory environment”.

In late December, Chinese authorities launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba, and told Ant Group to restructure its operations.

Ma was then called in by regulators for investigation, and his vanished from the public eye ever since.

And it’s likely not a coincidence, the professor of finance at Hong Kong University, Chen Zhiwu, told the Financial Times.

“The fintech clean-up considerations would not have been an issue [for the authorities].

“But everything changed after the speech... Xinhua News agency publicly attacked Ma,” he said.

Has this happened before?

Yes. Ma is not the only Chinese businessman to disappear from the public eye after battling with regulators.

In 2020, Xu Zhangrun, a law professor, and Zhang Xuehzong, a human rights lawyer, were reportedly arrested over criticising the Communist Party for its response to the pandemic.

Retired real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang also reportedly disappeared for criticising the Communist Party’s COVID response, and was later sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Is Jack Ma really missing?

Ma has been out of public view since November, when he failed to make an appearance at his own talent show, Africa’s Business Heroes.

Ma was supposed to be on the judging panel, but was replaced by an Alibaba executive in the final. His picture was also removed from the website.

The billionaire’s last tweet was on 10 October in 2020.

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