Is Jack Ma missing, huh? The reports alone are a chilling new message from Beijing

In the three decades following the creation of the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba Company, Jack Ma has unveiled his status as China’s most flamboyant billionaire. He has been a participant at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Fortune Global Forum, has appeared at the Alibaba gathering, dressed as a punk rocker and Michael Jackson, and has even acted in a martial arts video.

And then, last week, when it became clear that Ma had failed to show up for a recent recording of Africa’s Business Legends, a TV program he produced and known to be enthusiastic about, commentators, advertisers, and the financial press started to wonder: where is Jack?

The Financial Times was among the first to note that TV show-runners, a talent contest for entrepreneurs, had replaced Ma as a judge on the show in November, shortly before shooting her final. The show has not yet been broadcast, but the producers have deleted Ma’s image from its website, and the promotional material of the program explicitly prevents any mention of it.

Ma’s sudden absence from the TV show attracted attention to the fact that it was days after he gave a now notorious speech at the Bund Summit in Shanghai. In his remarks at the meeting, which featured China’s most powerful financial authorities, a slew of senior central bankers, and executives from some of the nation’s largest state-owned banks, Ma bluntly mocked Chinese regulators for being too risk-averse, stifling creativity, and sticking to a “pawnshop” mindset in regulating China’s financial sector.

The vengeance was easy. Officials summoned Ma and senior executives from Ant Group, China’s leading mobile payment network, and Alibaba spinoff, to Beijing for questioning. Days later, Beijing vetoed Ant’s initial public offering on exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai—a dual listing that promised $37 billion, the richest IPO in corporate history. The Wall Street Journal announced that orders to delete Ant’s listing had come directly from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Since then, Ma has not been seen in public. His absence is reminiscent of previous incidents in which Beijing arrested company leaders without notice of what it views as impropriety.

An Alibaba spokesperson said that Fortune Ma was unable to attend the recording of Africa’s Business Heroes due to a “schedule conflict.” Neither Alibaba nor Ant released any press releases about Ma’s whereabouts or regulatory filings concerning his position. The Chinese government is still holding mom, and China’s state-owned media have made no note of Ma’s long absence from public view.

Jeffrey Halley, the Senior Asia-Pacific Business Analyst at Oanda, argues that “there’s no evidence that Jack Ma has been detained, and they really don’t have any reason to detain him.” Halley suggests Ma is voluntarily “choosing to keep an extremely low profile while he lets the people who work for him work with the regulators to come to an acceptable conclusion.”

Brock Silvers, Chief Investment Officer at Kaiyuan Capital, thinks that there is more to Ma’s disappearing act.

Whatever the reason for Ma’s absence from the public eye, his departure marks a major change in the role of China’s tech tycoon. Ma, a retired schoolteacher who set up Alibaba with a small group of friends from his lakeside apartment in the eastern city of Hangzhou and for a time became the richest man in China, has long been venerated as a national hero—the manifestation of Chinese bravery and creative spirit and a living emblem of its rise to prosperity. But China’s Communist leaders gradually regard China’s tech moguls with distrust, believing that they have gained too much influence and cannot be relied on to support the party’s aims.

It is not unprecedented for Chinese investigators to arrest company leaders who are found guilty of putting their own needs before those of the state.

Earlier this year, billionaire real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in jail after openly criticizing the Communist Party’s reaction to the coronavirus epidemic and calling Xi a “clown.” Wu Xiaohui, a Chinese tycoon who rose to international fame after his Anbang Insurance Company went on a multinational purchase spree involving the sale of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, was convicted on bribery charges in February 2018 and was also sentenced to 18 years in jail. In 2017, Xiao Jianhua, head of the troubled Tomorrow Party, was taken from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong by the mainland security police and crossed the border; he remains under house arrest on the mainland, allowing the authorities to dissolve his corporate empire. Guo Guangchang, chairman of Shanghai’s Fosun International, vanished for several days in December 2015 only to re-emerge, without any clarification, that he had been “assisting investigations” linked to the anti-corruption movement of the Chinese government.

China’s legal specialist, Jerome A. Cohen, claims that the laws regulating criminal custody in China are arbitrary and opaque. Nor, he states, are aliens excluded. Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was abducted from Thailand as a result of reports that his Hong Kong publisher had distributed titles that were humiliating to Xi; he remained in mainland police custody. Two Canadians, former ambassador Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, were imprisoned in 2018 on charges of spying in China after Canada arrested Huawei Technologies’ CFO in compliance with the U.S. extradition order.

In recent years, Xi has tried to improve the Communist Party’s dominance over China’s private enterprises, to install more party officials within private businesses, to release a set of comprehensive instructions warning firms to represent the regime, and to deprive state-owned banks of credit. But detaining a market chief as celebrated as Ma will carry the initiative to a whole new stage. As Silvers notes, Ma is “the most iconic figure in China’s tech landscape.”

 

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