Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is “lying low right now” after the Alibaba and Ant Group founder had a whirlwind year that led to a pulled multi-billion-dollar IPO and a heavier regulatory crackdown.
Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai told CNBC Tuesday that Ma is “fine” and “doing very very well.” Tsai said he talks to him every day and said Ma has taken up painting.
Tsai did say it was important to separate what is going on with Ma and what’s happening with Alibaba at the moment. The executive also pushed back on the notion that Ma has “an enormous amount of power,” given the fact that the billionaire left Alibaba in 2019.
Ma’s Ant Group was once lauded as a disruptor in the booming fintech industry, and the company enjoyed massive growth thanks to little regulatory oversight in China.
The fintech company was poised to launch a $35 billion initial public offering in the fall of 2020 until Ma publicly criticized the nation’s lending methods and financial system at a conference. Chinese authorities stepped in and pulled the IPO, and reports later surfaced that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally instructed authorities to look into Ant following Ma’s comments.
Ant’s pulled IPO coincided with China’s new anticompetitive rules to rein in its homegrown tech companies. China also fined Alibaba $2.8 billion in April over concerns that it was abusing its dominant position in the online market.
The company said it “accepts the penalty with sincerity.”
Fidelity’s implied valuation of Ant Group fell to $144 billion from $295 billion, according to the filing. Fidelity first invested in Ant Group in June 2018 at a valuation of $150 billion. The implied valuation represents a massive drop from last year’s expected IPO valuation of more than $310 billion.
Ant Group owns Alipay, a mobile payments app that handled $17 trillion worth of payment transactions last year and has seen explosive growth as it combines a number of financial offerings into a single app.
“Alibaba accepts the penalty with sincerity,” the company said in a statement regarding the record fine. Alibaba owns about a third of Ant Group.
A Reuters report from last month suggested that Jack Ma is in talks give up his stake in Ant Group, which could help lessen regulatory scrutiny by the Chinese government. But an Ant Group spokesperson issued a statement to the outlet, saying Ma’s exit “has never been the subject of discussions with anyone.”
Ant had ballooned into an independent force alongside the state-controlled Chinese bank system, and the halted listing came just after Ma brazenly and publicly criticized the nation’s banking rules. Simply put, he spoke out against the country’s lack of a traditional financial system and the large role that the Party plays in lending money, as Nikkei Asia reported.
But the government’s takedown of Ma may be indicative of a larger zeroing-in on billionaires in the country as an existing wealth gap grows wider, a gap that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Disdain for the Communist country’s affluent population has grown, as the New York Times reported, and the government is leaning into that anti-rich sentiment as it’s broken down the power constructs that Ma has built in the country.
A widening wealth gap in China
Communist China once embraced a more capitalist-friendly free market in the 1980s, and when it did, some citizens saw their wealth skyrocket, as Bloomberg reported in December. Solidified social classes emerged, making it easier for the wealthy to maintain and grow their fortunes – but also more difficult for lower-income people to get richer.
Today’s rising housing costs in China’s cities and a squeezed white-collar job market with lower pay presents problems for the country’s young and educated in securing financial stability, per the NYT report. Those woes have stirred an animosity of the wealthy in China – as Bloomberg reported, the children who were born into money now find themselves under the scornful eye of the nation’s leader.
Besides the US, China has the most billionaires out of every country in the world – 626 to be exact, according to Forbes. Beijing itself has more billionaires than any city in the world. But about 600 million of its 1.4 billion-strong population earn $150 a month or less, as the NYT notes.
Such economic disparities have caused political problems for the Chinese Communist Party, which strives to preserve an evenly distributed wealth system. And Ma, with his $50 billion in net worth, is among its targets.
With a widening wealth gap, and billionaires like Jack Ma exhibiting that their companies can grow into the powerhouses that they are, China is hell-bent on preventing “the disorderly expansion of capital,” as Chinese leadership said in December.
China is tightening its grip on its economy
China is singling out companies and figures across industries in its quest to rein in the economy, from Swedish retailer H&M to homegrown tech giants, which have largely enjoyed a lack of regulatory constraints.
China was hoping other tech giants would take it as a warning, and it looks like they have. About three dozen Chinese tech companies, including TikTok owner Bytedance, JD.com, and the Twitter-like Weibo, have vowed to adhere to China’s new anti-competitive laws, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. They are also pledging to keep the party’s values at the forefront of their minds in hopes of escaping Ma’s fate.
The Ma-China debacle signals that turbulent times may lie ahead for innovation in China, as the Communist Party and its leaders demand that the country’s business community put patriotism above all else.
For three months, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has been keeping out of the public eye as China has cracked down on his businesses.
His sole public appearance was a 50-second video appearance at the end of January, during which he made brief remarks to rural teachers from across China.
But according to a Bloomberg report, the Alibaba and Ant Group founder was spotted playing golf at the Sun Valley Golf Resort in Hainan, China, in recent weeks. The upscale resort includes a 27-hole golf course, a clubhouse, and a restaurant.
Such clubs aren’t hard to find in Hainan, the island province in southern China that’s known as “the Hawaii of China” thanks to its tropical climate, luxurious beach resorts, and golf courses.
Here’s what it’s like to vacation in Hainan.
Hainan is China’s smallest and southernmost province, made up of more than 200 islands.
The main island is the 12,700-square-mile Hainan Island, which is home to about 9 million people and is a major tourist destination.
The Alibaba and Ant Group founder has reportedly been “lying low” in recent months as Chinese regulators cracked down on his businesses. Speculation on his whereabouts started when Ma failed to appear on the finale of the African talent show he created in November. In October, Ma had publicly criticized China’s banking rules.
Representatives for Ma’s companies did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment for this story.
The Sun Valley Golf Resort where Ma was reportedly seen includes a clubhouse, a restaurant and club bar, and a sauna.
The 27-hole course was designed by JMP Golf Design Group, a company that has designed high-end courses all over the world in countries including the US, France, Japan, Malaysia, and Mexico.
The club overlooks Yalong Bay near Sanya, a city on Hainan’s southern coast.
Sanya, Hainan’s most popular tourist destination, boasts more than 25 miles of coastline, a lively city center, and plenty of luxury hotels including a St. Regis, a Ritz-Carlton, a Rosewood, and an Edition hotel.
The Sun Valley Golf Resort where Ma was spotted is far from the only place to golf on Hainan. The island is home to multiple golf courses, and the temperate climate means it’s possible to play year-round.
Ma’s live-streamed video sent Alibaba’s Hong Kong shares up by as much as 8.5%. In the video, he can be seen addressing 100 rural teachers as part of a ceremony that recognizes exceptional educators in impoverished areas.
“Recently, my colleagues and I have been studying and thinking. We made a firmer resolution to devote ourselves to education philanthropy,” Ma said in the clip, according to Bloomberg. “Working hard for rural revitalization and common prosperity is the responsibility for our generation of businessmen.”
The billionaire, who is a former English teacher, seemed to embrace themes promoted by China’s Communist Party, Bloomberg said. He spoke about shrinking income disparities through a return of younger talent to rural areas.
A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation told Insider Ma had participated in the event on January 20 and confirmed the authenticity of the video clip.
Ma had seemingly disappeared from public view about two months ago after he publicly snubbed China’s regulatory system, saying the nation’s rules do not help foster innovation. He even criticized regulatory decisions to enforce a set of international banking rules as an “old man’s club.”
Soon after, China enacted new rules that clamped down on online financial lending, directly impact the lending business of Ma’s Ant Group. Regulators ordered Ant to overhaul its business and return to its origins as a payment service after officials accused the company of “turning a blind eye” to requirements.
In the video call, Ma, who used to be an English teacher, spoke to 100 rural teachers across China as a part of his Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award ceremony, which recognizes outstanding teachers in impoverished and remote areas.
“Recently, my colleagues and I have been studying and thinking. We made a firmer resolution to devote ourselves to education philanthropy,” Ma said in the video, according to Bloomberg. “Working hard for rural revitalization and common prosperity is the responsibility for our generation of businessmen.”
A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation told Insider that Ma participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event on January 20, but the time and date of the video have not been independently verified.
Questions began swirling about Ma’s whereabouts after the Alibaba and Ant Group founder failed to appear on the finale of the African talent show he created. Yahoo Finance reported on January 4 that Ma hadn’t been seen publicly in more than two months.
In October, the 56-year-old Alibaba founder had publicly criticized China’s financial regulatory system at a conference in Shanghai. The next month, Ma was replaced as a judge on the African talent show he founded, “Africa’s Business Heroes.” An Alibaba representative told Insider that Ma could no longer be on the judging panel, which was filmed in November but has not yet been released, “due to a scheduling conflict.”
Financial traders around the world are trying to get the scoop on Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma’s whereabouts, after media reports the tycoon hasn’t been seen in public for two months.
Traders are using their access to the powerful Bloomberg Terminal, which shows real-time financial data, to check out his profile, which shows his online status.
One trader told Business Insider that Ma’s profile has been offline for “three days at least.” His profile is now among the most-viewed on the terminal, indicating intense global trader interest in the story.
Ma has been conspicuously absence since the Chinese government commenced a regulatory crackdown on his businesses Alibaba and Ant Group.
The apparent disappearance of Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and Alibaba cofounder, has provoked curiosity not just on social media but among global traders who have been searching for his profile on Bloomberg’s terminal service for clues on his whereabouts.
Ma, whose net worth stands at $51.5 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has not been seen in public for two months. His absence comes amid a Chinese regulatory clampdown on his businesses.
Bloomberg Terminal, often touted as one of the most powerful machines in the world, is a paid service that gives its users access to a range of financial data from daily breaking news to charts, lists, and company information. It is widely used by banks, financial firms, and media outlets.
Bloomberg’s software is known for its powerful features – but one more light-hearted function is the “MVP” or most-viewed profile. Each trader on the terminal has a personal profile which also shows when they are online, via a green dot. Traders can also chat with each other via their profiles.
The most-viewed function lets traders see who their peers are reading and talking about on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. Traders say this is a must for those who want to be plugged into gossip.
Amid rumors of his disappearance, the MVP of the week is currently Jack Ma, with traders around the world checking out the Alibaba billionaire’s status on the Bloomberg chat function (he remains firmly offline.)
“I have checked out his profile in the past out of curiosity and have seen him online. So it’s pretty bizarre that he hasn’t been online lately,” one trader told Business Insider on the condition of anonymity.
Jack Ma’s profile on the terminal was the second-most viewed on Wednesday, after that of Credit Suisse’ Global head of equity sales, Lucy Baldwin, Business Insider understands. Ma’s profile saw more than 700 hits as of Wednesday morning.
His profile is the third-most viewed profile this month, with his profile seeing over 2,100 hits since the start of January. And it’s the most viewed profile this week with more than 1,800 hits.
The source added that there is growing interest among the trader community on his whereabouts. “Memes, conspiracy theories as well as his offline Bloomberg profile status are being actively shared in WhatsApp groups. Everyone is interested to know where he is.”
Another trader, based in Australia, told Business Insider on the condition of anonymity that they have also checked out Ma’s profile a number of times on the Bloomberg terminal in the hope of seeing him online there. “He has been offline for the past 3 days at least. I have checked out his profile a number of times.”
Ma’s offline status on Bloomberg doesn’t give any clues on his whereabouts – “he may be on holiday,” as one trader said – but the mystery of his whereabouts has captivated the public.
On Sunday, Yahoo Finance reported that Ma hadn’t been seen publicly in more than two months. He also missed an appearance in November on a TV talent show that he had founded, The Financial Times reported.
CNBC’s David Faber on Tuesday said Ma hasn’t gone missing but is lying low.
“He is being less visible, purposefully,” Faber said after noting that he has closely covered Ma and his businesses. “And you can expect for that to be the case for some time,” Faber said, citing sources.
Ma recently sparred with Chinese officials over Ant’s planned initial public offering and the size and scope of Alibaba. The IPO has since been shelved and Alibaba is being investigated by antitrust regulators.
The billionaire Alibaba and Ant Group founder is facing a crackdown from Chinese regulators that has resulted in an antitrust investigation, a suspended IPO, and Ma losing $12 billion of his fortune in just a few months.
This isn’t the first time Ma has faced adversity, however: He grew up poor in communist China, failed his university entrance exam twice, and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including one at KFC, before finding success with his third internet company, Alibaba.
Here’s how Ma got his start and made his fortune.
Jillian D’Onfro, Charles Clark, and Taylor Nicole Rogers contributed to an earlier version of this post.
Jack Ma – born Ma Yun – was born on September 10, 1964, in Hangzhou, southeastern China. He has an older brother and a younger sister.
After President Nixon visited Hangzhou in 1972, Ma’s hometown became a tourist destination. As a teenager, Ma started waking up early to visit the city’s main hotel, offering visitors tours of the city in exchange for English lessons. The nickname “Jack” was given to him by a tourist he befriended.
After high school, he applied to go to college – but failed the entrance exam twice. He finally passed on the third try, going on to attend Hangzhou Teachers Institute. He graduated in 1988 and started applying to as many jobs as he could.
He received more than a dozen rejections – including from KFC – before being hired as an English teacher. Ma was a natural with his students and loved his job – though he only made $12 a month at a local university.
Ma had no experience with computers or coding, but he was captivated by the internet when he used it for the first time during a trip to the US in 1995. He had recently started a translation business and made the trip to help a Chinese firm recover a payment. Ma’s first online search was “beer,” but he was surprised to find that no Chinese beers turned up in the results. It was then that he decided to found an internet company for China.
Though his first two ventures failed, four years later, he gathered 17 of his friends in his apartment and convinced them to invest in his vision for an online marketplace he called “Alibaba.” The site allowed exporters to post product listings that customers could buy directly.
Soon, the service started to attract members from all over the world. By October 1999, the company had raised $5 million from Goldman Sachs and $20 million from SoftBank, a Japanese telecom company that also invests in technology companies. The team remained close-knit and scrappy. “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up,” Ma said to a gathering of employees.
He was known for maintaining a sense of fun at Alibaba. In the early 2000s, when the company decided to start Taobao, its eBay competitor, he had his team do handstands during breaks to keep their energy levels up.
In 2005, Yahoo invested $1 billion in Alibaba in exchange for about a 40% stake in the company. This was huge for Alibaba – at the time it was trying to beat eBay in China – and it would eventually be an enormous win for Yahoo too, netting it $10 billion in Alibaba’s IPO alone.
In 2014, Ma told Bloomberg he knew Alibaba had made it big when another customer offered to pay his restaurant bill. The customer, Ma said in the interview, had left Ma a note that read: “I’m your customer of Alibaba group, I made a lot of money and I know you don’t make any money. I’ll pay the bill for you.”
The company’s $150 billion IPO was the largest offering for a US-listed company in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. It also made Ma the richest person in China, with an estimated worth of $25 billion at the time.
Alibaba employees threw a big party at the company’s Hangzhou headquarters to celebrate the IPO. One employee even took the party as the perfect opportunity to propose. Ma told employees at a press conference that he hopes they use their newfound wealth to become “a batch of genuinely noble people, a batch of people who are able to help others, and who are kind and happy.”
The biggest day in the calendar for Alibaba is China’s “Singles’ Day” – a retaliation to Valentine’s Day – which supposedly celebrates the country’s singletons. In 2016, the site recorded nearly $20 billion in sales in 24 hours.
Alibaba’s success may have made Ma an extremely wealthy man, but he has made very few flashy purchases, and he still has some pretty modest hobbies. “I don’t think he has changed much, he is still that old style,” Xiao-Ping Chen, a friend of Ma, told USA Today. He likes reading and writing kung fu fiction, playing poker, meditating, and practicing tai chi.
One of his greatest passions is the environment. According to Fortune, Ma developed an interest in environmentalism when a member of his wife’s family became sick with an illness that Ma suspected was caused by pollution. He sits on the global board of The Nature Conservancy and spoke during a session of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2015. He has also, according to Fortune, been instrumental in funding a 27,000-acre nature reserve in China.
In 2017, Ma made headlines after meeting President Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s protectionist attitude towards trade, Ma said China and the United States were not about to be drawn into a trade war. “Give Trump some time. He’s open-minded,” Ma told a panel at the World Economic Forum in January 2017.
Ma is something of a celebrity in China, and crowds of people show up to listen to him speak. The company also hosts annual talent shows, and Ma is a natural entertainer. At a company anniversary event, he dressed up as a punk rocker for a performance in front of 20,000 Alibaba employees.
Company lore has it that Ma came up with the name “Alibaba” while sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop. In “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a secret password unlocks a trove filled with unbelievable riches. Ma’s company has, in a way, revealed the potential of small and mid-sized businesses across the globe.
Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman on September 10, 2019, his 55th birthday. The company threw him a farewell party in an 80,000-seat stadium in Hangzhou, and Ma performed with other Alibaba executives.
In May, SoftBank announced that Ma would resign from the troubled investment fund’s board of directors.
“Stepping down from SoftBank Group’s Board, I believe, and he said to me actually, was something that he decided on his own,” SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said during the firm’s earnings announcement. “That’s sad, but we still keep in contact directly and right before the COVID-19, we met face-to-face every month to have dinner, to talk about businesses, to talk about lives. And we will remain friends for the rest of our life, I believe.”
In October, Ma made headlines again in relation to Ant Group’s highly anticipated IPO. Ant Group was expected to raise $37 billion with a valuation reportedly surpassing $300 billion. But then, Ma publicly snubbed China’s financial regulatory system, calling it ‘an old people’s club.’
Soon after, regulators introduced new online lending rules that directly impacted Ant’s business. Officials then said there were “major issues” with Ant’s listing, and by November, the IPO was suspended.
In the months since, Ma, China’s richest person, has seen his net worth tumble $12 billion, from approximately $62 billion to $50.1 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. He is now the fourth-richest person in China and the 25th-richest person in the world.
In January, Yahoo Finance reported that Ma hadn’t been seen publicly in more than two months and had been replaced as a judge on the TV talent show he founded, which raised the question of whether Ma had gone missing.
Ma’s absence mirrored similar situations where Chinese businessmen had disappeared after battling with regulators, but multiple sources now say that Ma is not missing – he’s simply “laying low” amid the government scrutiny and new regulations.
In November, Ma was replaced as a judge on the African talent show he founded, “Africa’s Business Heroes,” the Financial Times reported. The talent show did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment, but an Alibaba spokesperson told Business that Ma could no longer be on the judging panel for the show’s finale – which was filmed in November but has not yet been released – “due to a scheduling conflict.”
“We do not have anything to add beyond that,” the spokesperson said in response to questions about Ma’s whereabouts.
Last week, the Chinese government ordered Ant Group, which owns China’s largest digital payment platform Alipay, to scale back its operations after expressing concerns that its corporate governance was “not sound.”
A spokesperson for Ant Group did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment for this story.