He Was a ‘Rocking’ Billionaire Until He Disappeared. The Curious Case of Jack Ma Explained

According to a media report on Tuesday, Chinese billionaire and e-commerce giant Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who has been in trouble with the Chinese government over anti-monopoly regulations and has kept a low profile since 2020, is now living in Tokyo for about six months.

Ma’s months-long stay in Japan with his family included stays in hot springs and ski resorts in the countryside outside of Tokyo, as well as regular trips to the United States and Israel, according to the Financial Times, citing people with direct knowledge of his whereabouts.

As aptly described by a Forbes report by George Calhoun, in 2020 Jack Ma was wealthy and famous, and ‘we knew everything about him and followed his every move’.

Jack Ma performs onstage during Alibaba’s 20th anniversary party as the co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant steps down from his role as the company’s chairman, at a stadium in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 10, 2019. Reuters/Stringer

He was China’s richest man and the most famous living Chinese person (according to polls). He was about to cap his career with a triumphant public offering for his company, The Ant Group, the world’s largest Fintech company. Markets adored him. His high-tech business empire, which included Alibaba, the “Amazon of China,” was worth well over a trillion dollars. He was a businessman, an innovator, and a charismatic spokesperson for Success in the New China. But there was something more to Ma’s charisma. His showmanship abilities were exceptional. Alibaba’s stadium-sized company celebrations were choreographed into extravaganzas on par with any Super Bowl halftime show, and Ma was always the centre of attention, the report explained.

Until he disappeared.

Ma last appeared in public on October 24, last year, in Shanghai. He delivered a speech, dubbed “The Speech,” in which he was harshly critical of the Chinese financial industry establishment. Authorities responded several days later. They cancelled Ant’s initial public offering and summoned Ma to Beijing for “regulatory interviews.”

Since then, both the companies he founded — Ant and e-commerce group Alibaba — have faced a series of regulatory obstacles.

Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba Group, and actor Nicole Kidman attend a show during Alibaba Group’s 11.11 Singles’ Day global shopping festival in Shanghai, China, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

Chinese regulators called off Ant’s blockbuster $37 billion initial public offering and fined Alibaba a record $ 2.8 billion for antitrust abuses last year.

As reports speculated on his possible detention, a video surfaced, dubbed ‘the Hostage’ by social media users, in which a subdued Ma talked about pursuing a higher goal for himself.

Since then, Ma’s ‘appearances’ have been at best, shady. As of June last year, this is what was seen of him, according to Calhoun:

  • Ma is shown in a video (published by Chinese authorities) appearing uncharacteristically subdued and flat, and he makes no substantive comments; the video does not show any audience and does not provide any indication of the time or location.
  • Someone told a Bloomberg reporter that Ma had played golf in Hainan, but that person did not want to be identified as a source. The reporter did not see Ma play golf directly, and there was no photo to back up the claim.
  • In a text exchange, Masayoshi Son communicated with Ma (or someone using his phone).
  • Jack has taken up painting, it seems.
  • A number of trips to and from Beijing were made in Ma’s private jet.
  • It is said that Ma visited Alibaba, and that he was photographed once while he was there; however, the photograph is not currently available.
  • Ma sat through a meeting of the Russian Geographical Society that was held online.

(Back in April, it was reported that Jack Ma had participated in a video call with Vladimir Putin during a session of the Russian Geographical Society. This peculiar occurrence was covered by a number of news outlets, including the New York Times. The video of the event shows Vladimir Putin commanding the attention of a room full of people who appear to be scientists, bureaucrats, and members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The image of Putin is presented on the screen with eight smaller “participant tiles” surrounding it to create the impression of a board or perhaps a supporting cast (although Putin is alone, physically, somewhere, and the others are all presumably at separate remote locations. Jack Ma has a claim to the space occupied by one of the tiles. The duration of the video is an hour and a half.

During those ninety minutes, Ma does not move at all while he is in his personal video tile. He does not utter a sound, does not smile, is never requested to do anything, and no one ever makes reference to him. There is no indication as to where he may be or the reason why he is there. Neither of these can be determined. The majority of the time you will find him “resting his head on one hand and appearing extremely bored” (as the Times put it).

So, is he missing? Simply, put, it’s not for sure. But his appearances have definitely neither been assuring or replete.

His Japan Chapter

His absence from China has coincided with the escalation of President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid controls this year. This led to a harsh lockdown of Shanghai and the surrounding Yangtze river delta in April and May and sparked nationwide protests over recent days, the report said.

Ma has a home in Hangzhou, a city near Shanghai where Alibaba is headquartered. Since his fallout with Chinese authorities, Ma has been spotted in various countries, including Spain and the Netherlands.

Born to a poor family, Ma, who is the most revered businessman among Chinese people, grew up to be one of China’s richest men.

The sudden and surprise announcement by Ma in 2019 to retire stating that he preferred to die at a beach than at his work table set off speculation that he was feeling the weight of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), which firmly exercised its control over China’s top businesses prompting him to downsize his businesses.

Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma speaks at Alibaba Group’s 11.11 Singles’ Day global shopping festival in Shenzhen, China, November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

His retirement and the subsequent anti-monopoly crackdown by the CPC on a host of Chinese businesses, including Tencent and ByteDance, sparked speculation that the party headed by Xi is cutting wealthy businesses to size to reduce their growing influence in China.

Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post owned by Ma has recently reported that wealthy Chinese were looking for avenues to migrate after Xi won the third five-year term in last month’s once-in-a-five-year Congress of the CPC, fearing crackdowns against them.

A growing number of rich Chinese and even the middle class are paying for residence and citizenship through investment, which offers them location fluidity and the option to relocate at any given moment between two or more “home” nations, the Post report said.

Ma was spotted on the Spanish island of Mallorca last year. He has kept a low profile during his stay in Tokyo, bringing his personal chef and security with him and keeping his public activities to a minimum, said the people with direct knowledge of his whereabouts, the FT report said.

His social activities centre around a small handful of private members’ clubs, with one based in the heart of Tokyo’s swish Ginza district and another in the Marunouchi financial district facing the Imperial Palace.

Others said Ma had used his time in Japan to expand his business interests beyond the core e-commerce technologies of Alibaba and Ant, and into the fields of sustainability. He has largely turned over the reins to a new generation of leaders at both companies.

Ma’s six months in Japan have coincided with a historic sell-down by SoftBank of its long-term shareholding in Alibaba after the Japanese technology group suffered a heavy hit from a global tech rout earlier this year.

The Jack Ma Foundation and Ant did not respond to requests for comment regarding his visit to Tokyo, the report said.

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