Where’s Jack? Alibaba and Ant founder Jack Ma has not been seen for a couple of months. Amid Beijing’s crackdown on both the financial technology and e-commerce empires, keeping a low profile is probably prudent. A history of Chinese tycoons mysteriously disappearing, though, justifies concern.
Ma’s last public appearance was at a Shanghai conference in late October, where he railed against the country’s financial regulators and banks. The fateful speech ultimately set off a chain reaction, including the shock suspension of Ant’s $37 billion initial public offering and an antitrust investigation into Alibaba’s e-commerce practices.
The mystery has deepened in recent days after the Financial Times reported that Ma was replaced in November as a judge in a yet-to-be-aired episode of “Africa’s Business Heroes”, a reality television series he created. An Alibaba spokesperson blamed a scheduling conflict, failing to quell viral social-media chatter about the whereabouts of China’s best-known billionaire. Shares of $620 billion Alibaba, where Ma no longer holds either an executive or board position but remains a small shareholder, have fallen another 5% in Hong Kong since the start of the year.
Some of the handwringing is understandable, especially since it would be easy to put jittery minds to rest. Ma joins a long list of Chinese executives who have gone missing at one point, or still are. They include the boss of the now-dismantled Tomorrow Group, who was wheeled out of a luxury hotel in Hong Kong in 2017, and Fosun International Chairman Guo Guangchang, who resurfaced in 2015 just as enigmatically and abruptly as he had disappeared.
Ma’s international profile only adds to the anxiety. The charismatic entrepreneur wooed investors from around the world while wining and dining with the global financial elite in Davos. He also has a cult-like following at home as the ultimate self-made champion of small businesses. Even if there is nothing alarming about his unexplained two-month silence, it speaks volumes.