Chinese businessman Jack Ma resurfaces after 'disappearing' in October

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Erin Hale
·3 min read
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Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group - Charles Platiau /Reuters
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group - Charles Platiau /Reuters

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma reappeared in public on Wednesday for the first time in two months after he appeared to have fallen afoul of the government for publicly criticizing Chinese regulators and state-owned banks late last year.

Mr Ma, a former teacher-turned-founder of internet giant Alibaba, joined an annual award ceremony for rural teachers on Wednesday via video link dated January 20, according to Chinese media.

The Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, founded in 2015 as part of the Jack Ma Foundation, selects 100 teachers each year for three-year grants to improve educational standards in rural China, said Xinhua.

In the video, Mr Ma thanks teachers as he speaks directly to the camera against a background painting of traditional buildings, interspersed with a clip of him visiting rural schools.

Shared by the Global Times on Twitter, the video was met with scepticism by some Twitter users, who said Mr Ma looked like he was in police custody or making a televised confession.

In the business world, however, Mr Ma’s video was met with more enthusiasm as Alibaba’s shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange surged slightly on Wednesday.

Mr Ma disappeared from public view last year after making an unusually critical speech at the Shanghai Bund Summit in late October where he called the Basel Accord in Europe a “club for the elderly” and said Chinese regulators were “stifling innovation.”

Alibaba and its financial services affiliate Ant Group later would soon pay the price when one week later the Shanghai Stock Exchange suspended Ant Group’s US$35 billion IPO, which was set be the world's biggest float.

Shortly afterwards, Mr Ma failed to appear as a judge in the taping of a TV competition final, leading many to wonder about the billionaire’s whereabouts.

Then on Christmas Eve, regulators announced that Alibaba was under investigation for anti-competitive activities in a one-line statement.

While Mr Ma stepped down as the chairman of Alibaba in 2019, he is still synonymous with the internet juggernaut that he founded in 1999.

It is not unusual for celebrities who have angered China’s government to temporarily disappear from public view for several months before emerging to publicly atone for mistakes.

In 2018, Chinese actress and X-Men star Fan Binbing disappeared for several months after she was charged with tax evasion. She later apologized to the public and the Communist Party and paid US$70 million in fines.

In other cases, a notable disappearance for several weeks or months may be followed by news of corruption charges for business leaders and politicians, part of China’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign initiated under President Xi Jinping.