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Explained: Why Jack Ma’s ‘return’ has spread cheer and relief

Jack Ma was not seen in public after he delivered a speech at a conference in Shanghai in October 2020, in which he took a jab at Chinese authorities.

Written by Pranav Mukul | New Delhi |
Updated: January 21, 2021 8:23:43 am
A video recording of a livestream of Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., addressing teachers at an annual event he hosts to recognize rural educators, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Bloomberg Photo: Justin Chin)

After months away from public view — which fuelled speculation — Chinese billionaire Jack Ma resurfaced on Wednesday, and was seen addressing rural educators at an event that was streamed live.

Jack Ma goes out of sight

Ma was not seen in public after he delivered a speech at a conference in Shanghai in October 2020, in which he took a jab at Chinese authorities. The absence was first noticed earlier this month, after the outspoken billionaire failed to appear in the final episode of Africa’s Business Heroes, a TV show in which he was to be a judge. The Alibaba Group, which Ma co-founded more than two decades ago, cited a scheduling conflict as reason for his absence.

China’s crackdown

At the conference in Shanghai, Ma called for reform in China’s regulatory system, described the country’s financial watchdog as a “pawnshop” regulator, and suggested that the system “stifled business innovation”.

Following this, the Chinese government reportedly started a “coordinated regulatory crackdown” on the Alibaba Group — most significantly halting at the last moment in November, the $34.5-billion public offering of Alibaba’s financial services arm, Ant Group Co.

This, in addition to an antitrust investigation that China launched against Alibaba, led to a $140-billion decline in the group’s market value. The antitrust probe led the Chinese regulators to order Ant to separate its lending business from its online payments division.

Ant Financial is an investor in India’s digital payments firm Paytm and online food delivery platform Zomato.

Jack Ma’s empire

Ma co-founded Alibaba in 1999 with a group of 18 friends as a business-to-business marketplace. In 2003, he launched the retail platform TaoBao, and payments app Alipay, to compete with eBay and Paypal in China.

In 2014, Alibaba was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in a $25-billion IPO that lifted Ma’s net worth to $19.5 billion and put him on the top of the Forbes China Rich List. In 2016, he became the richest person in Asia, with a net worth of $33.3 billion. In 2019, he stepped down from the board of Alibaba.

The company has been one of the most prominent poster boys of China’s digital prowess. For the 12-month period ending September 2020, Alibaba Group’s China retail marketplace had 757 million annual active consumers. As of March 2020, Alipay had over 1.3 billion annual active users across the globe in segments such as payments, insurance, and wealth management.

Cheer at Jack Ma’s return

Alibaba’s Hong Kong-listed shares jumping over 6% on Wednesday, Reuters reported. The Alibaba Group plans to raise at least $5 billion through sale of US dollar-denominated bonds this month.

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