Ant Group has gone from preparing the world’s largest initial public offering to being ordered to review large swaths of its business. Chinese regulators have criticized the company for pushing its rivals out of the market and damaging consumer rights.
Meanwhile, Alibaba has been investigated in China for alleged monopoly behavior. And the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Beijing was seeking to shrink Ma’s empire and potentially take a larger stake in his businesses, citing Chinese officials and government advisers familiar with the matter.
Ma was even absent from the finale of an African talent show he created, according to the Financial Times. The newspaper reported that Mr. Ma was replaced as a judge during the November filming of the latest episode of “Africa’s Business Heroes,” a television contest for entrepreneurs.
On October 12, Ma said that he was looking forward to meeting the finalists during the online finale on November 14.
Alibaba told CNN Business on Monday that Ma “had to miss the final due to a scheduling conflict.” He declined to comment further on his whereabouts.
Ma has kept a lower profile within China for some time, said Duncan Clark, author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built” and founder of investment advisory firm BDA China. He added that Beijing wants its narrative on the Ant Group IPO to dominate the public conversation, and that the company probably knows that having any “diversity of views” on the matter will not help.
“But it certainly is remarkable … the silence is deafening,” he added.
While Ma no longer holds executive or board-level positions at any of the companies he co-founded (he resigned as Alibaba’s CEO in 2019), he is still Alibaba’s largest individual shareholder with nearly five percent worth about 25,000 million dollars. Ant Group said in regulatory filings last year that Mr. Ma has “ultimate control” over the company, and his personal wealth was expected to increase after the public offering.
He has also made frequent public appearances to speak about his philanthropic work, which he mainly focused on after retiring from Alibaba. His most recent post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, dated October 17, for example, included comments he made on an educational forum in China. Mr. Ma has also been a high-profile speaker at major international events such as the World Economic Forum.
However, it was Ma’s last major appearance that China’s tech watchers suspect got his business in trouble. At a conference in Shanghai in late October, Ma publicly criticized Chinese regulators for stifling innovation for being too risk-averse.
“What we need is to build a healthy financial system, not systematic financial risks,” he said. “Innovating without risk is killing innovation. There is no innovation without risk in the world.”
Days later, Chinese regulators summoned Ma and Ant Group executives to conduct what authorities called “regulatory interviews,” and the IPO was withdrawn. Oanda market analyst Jeffrey Halley wrote at the time that the comments “clearly did not resonate in the corridors of power in Beijing.”
It is not clear from official or company statements whether Mr. Ma has attended any meetings since then regarding the future of his business.
While Ma has been out of the limelight, his companies have made it clear that they are listening to Beijing. Ant said last week that he appreciated the “guidance and help” from regulators after Beijing spoke publicly about its requirements for the company. And Alibaba pledged in late December to “actively cooperate” with antitrust investigators.
The potential threats to Ma’s business aren’t limited to China, either. Washington has been stepping up its campaign against Chinese companies in recent weeks as the Trump administration draws to a close. And while Alibaba has not been a specific target, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo verified the company name late last summer when he urged US companies to remove “unreliable” Chinese-owned technology from their digital networks.
Meanwhile, public opinion about Mr Ma in China has turned sour. Many of the responses to Ma’s October Weibo post had a particularly negative tone.
“Again, it’s about resources and brain mines,” wrote a Weibo user, responding to Ma’s use of those words to describe children in China and the need for a strong education system. “It’s totally a line from a capitalist.”