Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese internet behemoth Alibaba, made his first public appearance in over two months in an online video Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation about his whereabouts.
In the 50-second video, Ma congratulated teachers supported by his foundation and made no mention of his disappearance or official efforts to tighten control over Alibaba and other internet companies over the past six months. The video appeared on Chinese business news and other websites.
The normally voluble Ma disappeared from public view after he irked regulators by criticising them in an October 24 speech at a Shanghai conference. Days later, regulators suspended the planned multibillion-dollar stock market debut of Ant Group, a financial platform that grew out of Alibaba’s payments service, Alipay.
Shortly afterwards, the record-breaking $37 billion IPO of his financial group Ant was spiked at the last minute by Chinese regulators in a shock move which some saw as retaliation for Ma’s outspokenness.
All praise for China’s poverty alleviation
The Jack Ma Foundation said in a statement released Wednesday: “Jack Ma participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event on January 20.” The foundation and Alibaba didn’t respond to questions about Ma’s status and when his next public event might be.
In the speech, Ma praised China’s poverty alleviation efforts, a central target of the Communist leadership, and vowed to dedicate more efforts towards helping rural teachers.
“My colleagues and I… are even more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech published by Chinese news site Tianmu News.
“China has… entered a new stage of development, and is moving towards common prosperity.”
Outspoken businessman turns subject of monopoly probe
Since the Ant IPO was quashed, Chinese regulators have launched an anti-monopoly probe into Alibaba.
Both Alibaba and Ant said they will cooperate with regulatory requests.
Ma, a charismatic former teacher turned Internet entrepreneur, retired as chairman of Alibaba in 2019 but has long attracted attention for his outspokenness and flamboyant antics, performing as a rockstar at company conferences.
The continued squeeze on one of China’s most influential companies is the latest sign that the leadership is ready to deflate the ambitions of big tech firms in a runaway Internet sector.
Beijing has a history of disappearing, investigating and imprisoning financial tycoons who do not toe the party line.
Last year, outspoken real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was jailed for 18 years on alleged corruption charges, months after penning an essay critical of the Communist Party.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)