The founder of the online sales portal Alibaba, Jack Ma, was on the verge of becoming the richest man in China.
In November 2020, on the eve of the closure of another of his successful businesses, the billionaire suddenly disappeared.
The Alibaba company has grown from an online store managed in its apartment to one of the biggest tech giants in the world. Today, it reaches nearly 800 million users with services that include online shopping, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.
The tech mogul is known for his extravagant presence and publicity stunts. He has given parties to thousands of his employees, with musical performances performed by himself.
Its most recent company, Ant Group, dominates the digital payments market in China through its mobile finance app, Alipay.
The company aims to revolutionize the banking industry in China, changing the power of traditional institutions.
On October 24, in Shanghai, the Ant group was ready to launch the world’s largest initial public offering (IPO).
Prior to the event, Ma spoke at a meeting with a very controversial speech, in which he criticized the Chinese financial system.
After this speech, the businessman did not return to be seen publicly for three months. There were rumors that Ma was under house arrest or detained by Chinese authorities. Some doubted he was still alive.
In his speech, the founder of Alibaba accused Chinese banks of operating with a “pawnshop” mentality. He also said Chinese authorities were trying to “run an airport like a train station”, referring to digital finance regulations.
These claims have infuriated the traditional banking industry, and some reports suggest they have caught the attention of Chinese President Xi Jinping as well.
Subsequently, Ma and her closest colleagues were called to a meeting with regulators, and the Ant Group’s IPO was halted.
Shares of companies owned by Ma fell, losing $ 76 billion from their initial value.
After reuniting in November 2020, Jack Ma has not been seen for weeks.
“That day he apparently crossed the invisible red line of what can be said and done in China by Xi Jinping,” said Christina Boutrup, a Chinese business analyst who interviewed Ma on the occasion.
“I think it was a big surprise for him. He would never have crossed that line if he knew how bad it could be for him.”
After three months, on January 20, 2021, Ma reappeared in a short video for a charity event. The following month, he showed up to play golf on Hainan Island.
“Apparently he was very low key, which was really the best he could do,” said Boutrup.
The Chinese government is reviewing its strategy for regulating tech giants and, in recent days, has launched an antitrust investigation against Alibaba.
Last week, a regulator said it fined 12 companies, including Tencent and Baidu, for violating China’s antitrust code.
This may indicate an escalation in the tech industry.
China is questioned by the United States and other countries for its human rights policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province.
Some see the shift from control to technological superpowers as an effort to prioritize stability and control over commercial success.
“There are (Communist) Party committees out there to remind companies that the party ultimately has power, even over powerful individuals like Jack Ma,” said Samantha Hoffman, a researcher at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy. .
This control extends to secrecy, he noted.
“A company is not only responsible for doing what the party demands, but it cannot admit that it is doing what the party says, if it is questioned,” he added.
But other experts suggest that Alibaba and other Chinese tech giants shouldn’t be seen in the West through political lenses alone.
“China is still a developing country. I think it would be unfair to judge a developing country with the same credentials and merits as those of a developed country,” said Lillian Li, author of the Chinese technology bulletin, titled Chinese Characteristics.