Alibaba and ANT Group founder Jack Ma’s recent absence from the public spotlight, including the fact that he skipped the final episode of a TV show in which he was to be a judge, fuels speculation about his location in the middle of Chinese government restrictions on his business empire.
After the conference in Shanghai at the end of October, China’s most prominent entrepreneur remained quiet while blasting China’s regulatory framework in a speech that put him at odds with authorities, culminating in the suspension of Alibaba’s initial public offering of $37 billion.
Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based technology consultancy BDA China, believes that Ma has been told to lay low. “This is an exceptional case, linked more to the sheer size of Ant than the sensitivities over financial regulation”, he said.
Jack Ma has regularly appeared in the media to discuss his charitable endeavours, which he has devoted much of his time to after returning from Alibaba. For example, on October 17, his most recent post on the Chinese Social Networking Site Weibo featured remarks he made at a Chinese education forum. At critical international events, such as the World Economic Summit, Ma was also a prominent guest. Observers in China, however, believed Ma landed in hot water on his last big outing.
In China, popular sentiment about Ma seems to have turned negative. Many of the responses Ma received on Weibo in October were particularly harsh.
After Ma’s speech in October, Chinese authorities are focusing on his companies. Alibaba was ordered to shake up its lending and other consumer finance businesses as part of an antitrust probe.
From government records or company statements, it is not clear whether Ma has since held discussions concerning his company’s prospects. Although Ma was away from the spotlight, his businesses proved that they listened to Beijing. As Beijing publicly spoke about its business specifications last week, Ant said it appreciated “guidance and help” from regulators. Alibaba promised in late December to “cooperate actively” with competition regulators.