Image Credit: Image Credit: Foundations World Economic Forum, Wikimedia Commons
Who is Jack Ma?
A former English lecturer from Hangzhou, Ma’s rise to becoming the second wealthiest person in China, with a net worth of $58.3 billion, is a true rags to riches story. Anything but a high-achiever growing up, in an interview with Bloomberg in 2015 he explained, “I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy rejected.”
In 1992 he founded the first English-language translation agency in his town, called “Hope” with the slogan “Shake Hands across the Ocean.” This was not what earned him his billions, however. On a business trip to the US to solve an international dispute between an American and Chinese firm building roads, he surfed the internet for the first time in Seattle. Inspired by what he found, upon returning to China he started the country’s first ever internet venture. From this, sprouted a bigger vision, Alibaba, essentially the Chinese equivalent to Amazon e-commerce founded by Ma in 1999. In 2014, Alibaba raised $25 billion in an initial public offering on the NYSE, the largest initial public offering in US financial history.
“Unorthodox businessman” is an understatement. Whilst chairman of Alibaba Group, he went on stage in full Michael Jackson gear and danced to “Dangerous” for his staff at the 2017 Alibaba annual party. In a similar vein, he sang “Unchained Melody” at The Computing Conference 2017.
A debate with Elon Musk, arguably his polar opposite, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference 2019 excellently captures Ma’s outlook on life. Following teleprompters on AI, population control and climate change Musk lays out his extravagant plans for the future of AI and his ambition to travel to Mars. His final answer is that we must “Fight for the light of consciousness.” In contrast, Ma is far more focused on the present and making the world we live in a better place. His final statement demonstrates his faith in humanity; “It's great human beings make mistakes, it's great human beings learn from mistakes. It’s great to die.”
Before proceeding, it must be stated any opinions shared are pure speculation.
Why has he gone missing?
In late October, he stood alongside senior officials and delivered a speech criticising China’s regulator and its state-owned banks. He compared the banks to “pawn shops” where collateral and guarantees are the hard currencies, going as far as claiming China’s biggest risk is that it “lacks a financial ecosystem.” Reportedly, the speech made President Xi Jinping furious.
It is important not to jump to conclusions. The BBC cited an Alibaba employee saying that Ma often takes time off before the Chinese New Year, in February. However, in the past there have been severe consequences for those who criticise the Chinese Communist Party. Superstar actress Fan Bingbing, for example, abruptly dropped out of sight in 2018 before reappearing a year later to apologise for a tax evasion scandal. Real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang disappeared for several months in 2019 after criticising President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic; he was eventually jailed for 18 years on corruption charges.
Perhaps the greatest blow dealt to Jack Ma was at the end of last year when regulators halted what would have been the world’s biggest share offering of his fintech company, Ant Group. They later launched anti-monopoly investigations into Alibaba and its competitor TenCent and in late December regulators ordered Ma to scale back Ant Group’s operations. Co-managing partner at Marcum Bernstein & Pinchuk, a consultancy which advises Chinese companies, Drew Bernstein, points out; “This deal was not only cleared for take-off, the wheels were literally off the ground” making the regulators’ last minute intervention concerning. The dual listing in Hong Kong and Shanghai was set to be worth $34.4 billion and would have catapulted Ma’s net worth to roughly $80 billion.
Rana Mitter, professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, offers her take on the situation: “Tech entrepreneurs may be the most glamorous, the most publicly favourable face that China is showing to the world. But there is no one individual, no one company bigger than the Chinese Communist Party.”
Jack Ma was the closest anyone got to reaching that platform but it seems he may not get any closer.