Jack Ma just made his first public appearance in months as his tech empire continues to face scrutiny from Chinese regulators.
The billionaire co-founder of Alibaba (BABA) resurfaced Wednesday, in a video published by Chinese state media. He was shown speaking to teachers in rural China as part of a philanthropic event.
The video was published online by Tianmu News, a subsidiary of the Zhejiang government’s official newspaper. Zhejiang province is home to Hangzhou, the city where Alibaba is based.
Ma had not made a public appearance or social media post since late October, just over a week before Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Group was scheduled to list on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges. The IPO was blocked at the last minute by Chinese regulators, and his companies have since been targeted as part of an escalating crackdown on tech by Beijing.
His absence had fuelled speculation that he may have fled China.
According to a report by the Tianmu News, a news service run by the official Zhejiang Daily Group, Ma said in the video: “My colleagues and I have been studying and thinking, and we have become more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare.
“Working hard for rural revitalisation and common prosperity is the responsibility for our generation of businessmen.”
It was Ma’s first public appearance since 24 October, when he accused China’s financial regulators and state-owned banks of operating a “pawnshop” mentality at a high-profile summit in Shanghai. That set him on a collision course with officials and led to the suspension of a $37bn (£27bn) initial public offering (IPO) for Ant Group, which is an affiliate of Ma’s e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Authorities in Beijing also ordered an investigation into allegations of “monopolistic practices” at Alibaba and later ordered Ant Group to scale back its operations.
Shares in Alibaba, that had tumbled after the Chinese regulators’ actions, rose by 8.5% on Wednesday on the back of reports of Ma’s reappearance. Ant Group confirmed the authenticity of the video, but declined to comment further.
Steven Leung, the sales director at the brokerage firm UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong, said:
“Jack Ma’s reappearance has given investors peace of mind after a lot of rumours, allowing them to pile into the stock which had been a laggard in the market.”
Brock Silvers, a managing director at the private equity fund Kaiyuan Capital in Hong Kong, said: “Jack Ma’s unexpected reemergence, just as sudden as his earlier disappearance, is likely a sign that his relationship with Beijing’s regulatory authorities has stabilised.”
Speculation about the 56-year-old’s whereabouts had escalated in recent weeks when he was abruptly replaced as a judge on TV talent show Africa’s Business Heroes, and he was cut out of promotional videos for the programme.
Ma, previously China’s richest person, has seen his fortune drop from an estimated $61bn before his October speech to about $53bn, according to Bloomberg’s billionaires index.
The wealthiest person in China is Pony Ma (no relation), the chair and chief executive officer of rival tech firm Tencent.
On Christmas Eve, China’s state market supervision administration said it had ordered an investigation into Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd over “suspected monopolistic practices”.
An editorial in the state mouthpiece People’s Daily said efforts to prevent monopoly and anti-competitive practices were “requirements for improving the socialist market economy system and promoting high-quality development.
“This investigation does not mean that the country’s attitude towards the encouragement and support of the platform economy has changed.”