Friday, June 25, 2021

Questions swirl after Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma vanishes from sight

Ma’s business empire has been under scrutiny by Beijing ever since he delivered a controversial speech in Shanghai.

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Speculation is swirling around Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s whereabouts after reports surfaced that the high-profile businessman has not made a public appearance in more than two months.

The Alibaba founder also failed to appear as scheduled in the final episode of his own talent show, Africa’s Business Heroes, which gives budding African entrepreneurs the chance to compete for a slice of US$1.5 million.

Ma was supposed to be a judge but was replaced by an Alibaba executive in the November final, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported. His picture was also taken off the website.

An Alibaba spokesman said Ma was unable to take part on the judging panel “due to a schedule conflict”, according to the Financial Times.

Ma’s business empire, Ant Group, has been under scrutiny by Beijing ever since Ma delivered a controversial speech in Shanghai on Oct 24 that criticised China’s regulation system for stifling innovation and likened global banking rules to an “old people’s club”.

“Today’s financial system is the legacy of the Industrial Age,” Ma said in the speech. “We must set up a new one for the next generation and young people. We must reform the current system.”

Just over a week later, Ant’s IPO (valued at a record-setting US$37 billion), which had already received the green light from China’s securities watchdog, was suspended, with the Shanghai Stock Exchange saying Ant had reported “significant issues”.

But US veteran investor Mark Mobius said the move was designed to curtail financial institutions from getting too big.

“I believe the Chinese government stepped in because they realised that they had to regulate these companies, so that they don’t get too big,” he told CNBC. “The Chinese government is waking up to the fact that they cannot allow these companies to dominate a particular sector and particularly the financial sector.”

Chinese authorities launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba in late December and told Ant Group to restructure its operations.

Ma has donated millions of face masks to Europe, the US and the World Health Organization in a bid to stem the pandemic.

His last tweet was on Oct 10 last year.

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