China’s best-known entrepreneur Jack Ma is “lying low” and avoiding the spotlight, according to a highly placed Alibaba executive.
Joe Tsai, who co-founded the Chinese e-commerce giant with Ma, told CNBC he speaks to him every day.
“He’s actually doing very, very well. He’s taken up painting as a hobby, it’s actually pretty good,” said Tsai.
Ma has been noticeably absent after falling foul of China’s regulators in November.
He was set to become China’s richest man yet again following the dual stock market debut of his digital payments company Ant Group – an affiliate of Alibaba – in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
The company was estimated to be worth about US$35 billion.
But what was about to become the world’s biggest initial public offering was halted by Chinese regulators at the eleventh hour, citing “major issues” over regulating the company.
It is widely believed Ma’s criticism of the Chinese financial sector in October prompted the move.
Many analysts saw it as an attempt by Beijing to humble a company that had become too powerful and a leader who had become too outspoken.
At a financial technology conference, he had compared traditional banks to “pawn shops”, lauding the merits of the digital banking system instead, as well as stressing that future lending decisions should be based on data, not collateral.
Ant Group runs Alipay, the main online payment system in China, which has eclipsed cash, cheques and credit cards.
Alibaba, which owns a third of Ant Group, saw its share price plunge on stock markets after the suspension was announced.
Following this, China announced an antitrust probe into Alibaba, which is China’s largest e-commerce platform.
The investigation culminated in Alibaba being fined nearly US$3 billion by Chinese regulators in April, who said the company had abused its market position for years.
Ant Group immediately announced a drastic restructuring plan, with regulators forcing it to act more like a bank than a tech firm.
Tsai, who is also the executive chairman of Alibaba, said that he disagreed with the idea that Ma had become a maverick-like figure.
“The idea that Jack has this enormous power, I think that’s not quite right,” he said. “He is just like you and me, he’s a normal individual.”
He added that after all his efforts, Ma now just wanted to focus on the things he really wanted to spend time on, like philanthropy work and hobbies.
Tsai said the firm was moving forward: “I think you have to separate what’s happening to Jack from what’s happening to our business.