China’s richest man and Alibaba founder Jack Ma made his first public appearance since October on Wednesday, when he spoke to a group of teachers via a video call.
His unusual absence sparked a spate of speculation about his whereabouts after almost three months without being seen publicly amid Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on its vast business empire.
Although less frequently due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was common for Ma to appear at conferences and other events, and suspicion about his location heightened when he was replaced in the last episode of a reality show where he was a judge.
With a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine to be $ 60.7 billion ($ 325 billion), Ma last appeared in public on October 24, when he attacked China’s regulatory system during a speech. at a forum in Shanghai.
Harsh criticisms put him on a collision course with officials in Xi Jinping’s regime and led to the suspension of a planned $ 37 billion (R $ 198 billion) initial public offering (IPO) by the group. Ant, affiliated with Alibaba.
On Wednesday, the Alibaba Group’s charitable foundation confirmed that Ma participated in a virtual ceremony for teachers in rural areas, but did not provide further details. In a 50-second video, the billionaire appears clad in a navy sweater in a room with gray walls that provides no further clues to his location.
The video also contained footage, dated January 10, of Ma visiting colleagues at a school in Tonglu County, Hangzhou City, capital of Zhejiang Province on China’s east coast.
The topics “Jack Ma makes his first public appearance” and his video address to teachers quickly went viral on Weibo, a Chinese social network similar to Twitter.
According to financial market analysts, the reappearance of the businessman has given investors peace of mind after numerous rumors. The news pushed Alibaba’s stock up 8.5%, enough to wipe out the losses the group has suffered since it became the target of an antitrust investigation launched in December by Chinese authorities.
In China, Jack Ma is synonymous with success. The English teacher turned Internet entrepreneur is the richest person in the country. He founded Alibaba, something close to an Amazon rival. After Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, Ma was the first prominent Chinese he met.
But he lost his stature in Chinese society due to the problems he faces with the Chinese regime. In November, authorities canceled Ant’s planned initial public offering after Ma criticized financial regulators as obsessed with minimizing risk and accused Chinese banks of behaving like “pawnshops”, lending only ‘to those who can offer guarantees.
This confrontation would be the prelude to a much larger confrontation which can be configured as a defining moment for the future of private business in China by Xi Jinping.
Ma’s friends say that while he now regrets the consequences of his October speech, he has spoken seriously and still firmly believes in what he sees as the Ant Group’s mission to convert financial services into the second. greater economy. of the world.