Business & Economy

China’s richest man absent from public life after tensions with authorities

By Víctor Escribano and Jesús Centeno

Shanghai/Beijing, Jan 11 (efe-epa).- China’s wealthiest entrepreneur, Alibaba Group co-founder Jack Ma, has not been seen in public since October 2020 amid deteriorating relations between his business conglomerate and the Chinese government.

His absence has fueled speculation in foreign media outlets, some of which have gone as far as to use the term “disappeared.”

Chinese media has maintained a coordinated silence on the issue, coinciding with reports from Beijing of an alleged order not to report on a recent antitrust probe against Alibaba.

Sources close to the situation told Efe that Ma was keeping a “low profile” but “is well” and dismissed rumors that he had been detained by authorities or banned from leaving the country.

Alarm bells started to ring in November when Ma, who has an estimated wealth of $65.6 billion, failed to appear in his usual role as a judge on TV talent series Africa Business Heroes, which he helped found.

He was replaced by another Alibaba director.

His absence from the talent show came shortly after a speech in which he criticized Chinese regulators.

In recent years, several high-profile figures have disappeared from public view after committing crimes or becoming embroiled in disputes with Chinese officials only to reappear months later. A notable example is that of popular actress Fan Bingbing, whose whereabouts were unknown for several months after a tax evasion case in 2018.

Ma appears to be trying to quell further uproar amid Beijing’s propensity for tough responses. In November, authorities blocked the public listing of Alibaba affiliate firm Ant Group, which was set to be the biggest IPO of its kind in history.

Whatever the situation at the heart of the dispute, Ma seems in no hurry to address the rumors, either personally or via Alibaba or Ant. He is not known as a person to turn down attention in the past — he has directed his own Kung-fu movie and once graced the stage of a business event dressed as Michael Jackson.

Both firms have published statements insisting that business would go on as normal while they collaborate with the authorities.

Ma stepped down as the head of Alibaba in 2019 — two decades after its founding — and he does not hold an executive position at Ant, although he is the major shareholder.

On Chinese social media sites such as Weibo — similar to Twitter — Ma’s vast legion of followers are calling for him to clarify his whereabouts, while his detractors have labeled him an “unscrupulous capitalist” who will be “punished.”

Just before the abortive IPO of Ant Group, Ma stirred up controversy during a speech in which he criticized China’s financial risk control strategy, stating that: “there is no risk-free innovation in this world. In many cases, controlling the risk to zero is the biggest risk.”

Putting forward his argument that Ant Group’s online payment service Alipay was a necessary financial alternative in China, Ma, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, took aim at the country’s banking system, saying: “today’s banks continue to be pawnshops, and mortgages and guarantees are pawnshops.”

Days later, Chinese regulators called Ma and Ant Group directors to account and published new, restrictive regulations on fintech services. The timing of the speech and the new laws led some experts to speculate that Ma knew the content of the rules before they were published and sought to use his public criticism to force a renegotiation.

In recent weeks, both the state press and senior officials of regulatory agencies have warned that financial innovation is a “double-edged sword” and that some of the companies in the sector, without directly naming Ant, operated “in violation of regulations under the banner of innovation, causing huge financial and social risks.”

Faced with the onslaught in Beijing, Ant Group decided to lower the credit limits for the youngest users of its virtual card service Huabei and Ma, according to The Wall Street Journal, made clear that Chinese authorities could take control of any of the company’s platforms if deemed necessary.EFE-EPA


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