Wearing burgundy lipstick and a long peroxide wig, the diminutive entrepreneur who would soon become China’s richest man took to the stage and belted out Can You Feel the Love Tonight? from Disney’s The Lion King.
Jack Ma, chief executive of e-commerce giant Alibaba, had earned the right to make a spectacle of himself. On that day in September 2009, in front of 16,000 adoring employees packed into Hangzhou’s Yellow Dragon stadium, the eccentric but iron-willed former English teacher was celebrating. He had built a bona fide tech champion, China’s answer to Amazon, eBay and PayPal rolled into one.
Little more than a decade on, Ma is experiencing a much less triumphant moment in the spotlight. After nearly three months in which his whereabouts have been unknown, following a public show of dissent towards Beijing, he resurfaced last week, apparently much chastened.
His 48-second appearance – in a broadcast from an unknown location – was “like a hostage video”, according to one member of a large online forum of China analysts.
Alibaba remains a powerhouse of the Chinese business scene, but Ma has had his wings clipped, having taken the bold and perhaps foolish step of crossing the Communist party, of which he is a member.
“I don’t understand what he was thinking,” says Bill Bishop, who writes the China-focused newsletter Sinocism. “That’s not constructive in the Chinese system.”
During a summit in Shanghai last October, Ma criticised regulators’ attitude towards big business, accusing them of a “pawnshop” mentality that stifled innovation. “We shouldn’t use the way to manage a train station to regulate an airport,” Ma declared. “We cannot regulate the future with yesterday’s means.”
He was speaking just moments after Wang Qishan – righthand man to China’s leader, Xi Jinping – had said much the opposite. Wang had stressed the primacy of safe regulation ensuring that business did not become the master of the state.
“[Ma’s speech] was about risk-taking, putting your neck on the line and not minding the instability that comes from that,” says George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and the author of Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is in Jeopardy. “That’s anathema to the philosophy of Xi Jinping’s party.”
Ma’s direct contradiction of Beijing’s rhetoric went viral on social media, adding to the potential embarrassment for the Communist party. He might have been worth more than £35bn, but it swiftly became clear who was boss.
Within a fortnight, the entrepreneur and two of his lieutenants were summoned to meet financial regulators. A day later, the imminent stock market flotation of Ant Group – an online finance company spun out of Alibaba that includes the digital payments system Alipay – was cancelled.
Regulators cited “changes to the financial technology regulatory environment and other major issues”, but the prevailing narrative was that Ma was being punished at the cost of Ant Group’s initial public offering (IPO). Shares in Alibaba, which owns part of Ant, fell more than 8%, whittling down Ma’s net worth by more than £2bn. Authorities in Beijing also ordered an investigation into allegations of “monopolistic practices” at Alibaba – as well as fellow tech firm Tencent – and later ordered Ant Group to scale down its operations.
Bishop agrees that there are genuine reasons for concern about the way Alibaba wields commercial power and its treatment of workers. There is also, he believes, genuine anxiety among regulators about the systemic risk inherent in Ant’s model of originating numerous small loans. But the idea that Ma’s public show of dissent was not at the root of the last-ditch intervention in the Ant Group float is, says Bishop, “crazy”.
“It’s China, it’s the Communist party – it’s always political. He basically embarrassed the vice-president and the regulators … four days later his IPO is pulled.
“If it was purely regulatory concern, why let it get to IPO? It’s pretty obvious that his speech that day was somehow the trigger.”
Rumours abound that it was Xi personally who pulled the plug. Magnus, who has charted Xi’s style of government, emphasises his regime’s steady march away from its flirtation with “marketisation”. Instead, Xi’s China has gravitated towards a Leninist ideological approach, imposed via the “United Front” network of businesses and groups whose interests must align with those of the party.
“Jack Ma happens to be one of the most popular and well-known people who has fallen foul of the leadership’s new angst about people growing too big for their boots and having powers that seem to rival the authority of the party itself,” he says. “If entrepreneurs are politically compliant, they will thrive. If they’re not compliant they will not thrive and will be subject to the kind of treatment Jack Ma has just been the victim of.”
During the three months that Ma was missing, speculation was rife. Some said that the 56-year-old had fled the country, others that he was just keeping a low profile and had been seen on the golf course. The rumour mill accelerated when he was abruptly replaced as a judge on the TV talent show Africa’s Business Heroes.
The very fact of Ma’s reappearance sent Alibaba’s shares up 8.5% on the day the video of him was confirmed as genuine, but his return has not necessarily cleared things up.
In the video, dated 10 January but released last week, Ma devoted himself not to matters of regulation and business but to uplifting China’s rural poor. “My colleagues and I have been learning and thinking, and we have become more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare,” he said, addressing teachers at a rural school.
He had, he said, reached the conclusion that Chinese entrepreneurs should be devoting their time to “rural revitalisation and common prosperity” – both key parts of the Xi agenda.
Magnus points out that it is impossible to know whether Ma is under some form of detention. His current whereabouts are not certain either. And the fact that his businesses have become so integral to everyday financial transactions for many Chinese people may not protect him.
“Do they have to be careful with him? Some might think so, because his elevated position is a bit like Bill Gates or someone like that. To be honest with you, if the party was really anxious about him and his influence, I don’t think they’d have any qualms about shutting him away.”
Domestic and foreign investors have been not just bruised by the failed flotation of Ant Group, but reminded of what is expected of them. “Starting last summer, we began to hear a lot more about what Xi’s vision is for private entrepreneurs and how they fit within the objective of the great rejuvenation that he’s pushing,” says Bishop.
“Xi has brought up patriotic entrepreneurs from the last century who made a lot of money and then did a lot for the country and a lot for the party. The politically savvy business folks see that as a shifting political wind that they have to be more sensitive to.”