After Jack Ma dared criticize the Chinese Communist Party at a meeting in Shanghai in October 2020, he lost his respect in China and much of his riches.
After the Shanghai event, Ma disappeared for roughly three months, during which time he was removed from all public events and websites, including the website for the TV show he had previously hosted. The normally upbeat billionaire was notably depressed when Ma made a return appearance.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government conducted an antitrust investigation against Alibaba, and Ma’s mammoth finance firm, Ant Group, was fined more than $1 billion. The industry-wide crackdown felt by many other Chinese IT firms was devastating, wiping away billions of dollars in market capitalization.
After disappearing from public view for a year, Ma reemerged in Japan in December, having apparently relocated his family there in the spring of 2022. According to those close to him, he was busy behind the scenes with pursuits like art collecting and watercolor painting.
According to a Monday BBC story, Ma has returned to China, first making a quick detour in Hong Kong to catch up with friends and check out an art festival before making his way to Hangzhou, where Alibaba’s headquarters are located.
Ma, who used to be a teacher, recently visited a private school in Hangzhou, where he spoke on the future of technology in the classroom, including the impact that AI systems like ChatGPT will have. It was also claimed that he expressed interest in going back into teaching.
Ma denied discussing his absence and extended period of quiet after criticizing the Chinese government and instead claimed he had been going abroad to study agriculture, as reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), which is owned by Alibaba.
The WSJ reported that China’s incoming premier, Li Keqiang, “devoted a large portion of his first news conference earlier this month to reassuring entrepreneurs of Beijing’s support for the private sector.”
Apparently, Li contacted Ma’s Japanese contacts in an effort to get him to visit China, sending a message that the crackdowns were done and that “restrictive laws” on IT businesses will soon be relaxed.
The return of Ma from exile was met with skepticism by those who didn’t believe it would be enough to reassure company owners that doing business under China’s authoritarian regime was once again risk-free.
“I can see how this sort of signals a relaxation but none of the laws and institutions set up to control the private sector have changed,” Fraser Howie, an analyst, told Reuters.
“It doesn’t matter at all to private business because he is already beaten. The state won, Jack has lost control, power, wealth and it’s not coming back,” Howie put it.
King’s College London lecturer Xin Sun told CNBC that he believed “some type of arrangement” had been made between Ma and the Beijing authorities to allow for Ma’s public return to China.
“In so doing, the government intends to signal its warmth towards private sector and investors – if even Jack Ma is perceived as having been pardoned, everyone else should feel safe and welcome,” The Sun remarked.