On October 24, Alibaba founder Jack Ma gave a speech in Shanghai that seemingly altered the course of his life forever. Beforehand, the billionaire, who is China’s Jeff Bezos (or maybe Jeff Bezos is our Jack Ma, depending on how you look at things), was about to go public with his latest fintech venture, Ant, in what would have been the world’s largest IPO.
In his speech, Ma harshly criticized China’s regulatory system, noting that Chinese banks have a “pawnshop” way of doing things. “To innovate without risks is to kill innovation,” he said. “There’s no innovation without risks in the world.” To someone from the U.S., where attacking big government is a national pastime, this barely registers as criticism, but in China it was a very big deal. Reuters reported that Ma’s underlings advised him to tone down his speech and warned him that the audience would include some of the country’s most senior financial regulators. But the second-richest man in China, determined to speak his mind, disregarded that advice and went ahead with his speech as planned.
In the aftermath, President Xi Jinping made the personal decision to block Ant’s IPO, sources told the Wall Street Journal, and those pesky financial regulators also began looking into Alibaba for violating antitrust laws. And Jack Ma fell out of sight. He hasn’t been seen in public since October. In a November press release for Africa’s Business Heroes, a Shark Tank–esque television show Ma created and was a judge on, he was quoted as saying he was very excited for the finale. After his speech, he was replaced on the show by Lucy Peng, an Alibaba executive, and his image was removed from its website. According to the Financial Times, the finale was shot in November but will premiere this spring.
Since the international press got wind of the extent of the fallout from his speech, everyone has wondered: Where in the world is Jack Ma? Is he just keeping a low profile after a speech blew up in his face? Or is something more insidious going on?
Unlike in the U.S., in China, being rich doesn’t protect you from being punished by the government. In March, Ren Zhiqiang, a Chinese property tycoon, disappeared after writing an essay blaming the Chinese government for the coronavirus outbreak and calling Xi Jinping a “clown stripped naked who still wants to be the emperor.” In September, Ren reappeared in court, where he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for “corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds,” crimes he supposedly “voluntarily” confessed to.
Despite Ma’s leaving Alibaba’s board in 2019, the hullabaloo that ensued after his Shanghai speech has apparently hurt the company. Its stock has fallen 34% since late October.
After news of Ma’s vanishing act went viral on Monday, a person familiar with him told CNBC that he isn’t missing, just “lying low.” Whatever that means.