The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where is Jack Ma? Social media buzz about the famous billionaire puts spotlight on Chinese tech.

The Alibaba founder’s uncertain whereabouts and growing regulatory troubles illustrate tense relations between tech giants and the state

Jack Ma, center, then the chairman of Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba Group, at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in December 2018. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

China’s most famous billionaire has suffered months of mounting trouble, with regulators turning the screws on his tech empire. And now social media is abuzz with the darkest speculation yet: Is Jack Ma missing?

The charismatic founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, known for his frequent Davos appearances and Michael Jackson dance moves, hasn’t been seen in public since late October, when he criticized Chinese regulators in a speech.

His absence, combined with regulatory troubles including a recent antitrust probe, have fueled wild speculation on social media about his whereabouts, with some fearing he is under house arrest. In China, it’s not unusual for powerful figures to disappear with little public explanation when they fall afoul of authorities — such as in 2018, when the country’s most prominent movie star, Fan Bingbing, fell off the map for months before reemerging to confess to tax evasion.

A CNBC reporter who has interviewed Ma in the past tamped down some of the wilder speculation Tuesday, reporting that Ma was not missing but merely “being less visible, purposefully.”

Still, the saga has drawn attention to the increasingly uneasy position of China’s tech giants, which may be growing too big and powerful for the ruling Communist Party’s liking.

China launches antitrust investigation into Alibaba, its most successful Internet company

The increased scrutiny they are receiving has many Chinese characteristics, but it mirrors some of the anti-tech regulation happening in the United States and Europe, where worries have also mounted about the economic and political power of the world’s biggest companies.

“I think it’s relatively similar dynamics at play in all these places. There are lots of winner-take-all network dynamics, which raises some worries about competition and about the societal impacts,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank. “In China, the societal concerns include worries about private entrepreneurs being able to challenge the party-state. In the U.S., it is more about misinformation and alleged political bias.”

In some respects, China’s internet giants are even more powerful than their Western counterparts, with the market more concentrated around a couple of top players.

Ma, a former English teacher from Hangzhou, founded the e-commerce company Alibaba in 1999 and built it into China’s version of Amazon, with annual revenue of $50 billion. Ant Group was spun off from Alibaba in 2014, after a decade as Alibaba’s in-house payment processing arm.

The companies were part of a group of tech start-ups, including Tencent and Baidu, that eventually grew into multinational behemoths, outside the more traditional system of state-owned enterprises. Ma became a business celebrity in China, widely admired for his success and colorful public appearances, including his rock-and-roll performances at annual employee galas.

Under President Xi Jinping, who has tried to reassert state control over the economy, the market might of the tech giants has at times caused tension.

Ant Group, a $16 billion-a-year business, has been chipping away at powerful state banks’ market share and unnerving regulators with investment and lending products that have become so popular that Ant sometimes acts as a lender to government banks — not the other way around.

China launches antitrust investigation into Alibaba, its most successful Internet company

In October, Ma offended the authorities by telling a technology conference that Chinese financial regulators stifle innovation and that big state banks are like “pawnshops.”

Soon after, regulators summoned Ma to Beijing for urgent meetings, and then quashed Ant Group’s plans to raise more than $34 billion by listing its stock on the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges.

And late last month, Chinese regulators said they were launching an antitrust investigation into Alibaba, and would question Ant Group executives about the financial platform’s competitive and consumer-protection practices.

Ma, meanwhile, skipped a planned appearance in November on a television show he created, “Africa’s Business Heroes,” the Financial Times reported.

Representatives of Alibaba, Ant Group and the Jack Ma Foundation didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Orville Schell, a longtime China watcher and Ma friend at the Asia Society in New York, said he doesn’t think this is a “fully scheduled voluntary retreat for him.”

“He is keeping his head down at the very least, and I don’t think he is going to rise again in the same dimension we were used to before,” Schell said.

Ma came of age in the 1990s, under then-Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, when “civil society was strong and everybody was setting up environmental organizations and NGOs,” Schell said.

“That’s when he was in Davos. All these new, young entrepreneurs were infiltrating into global society and business,” Schell said. “That was just fine until Xi Jinping did not imagine Chinese society continuing to evolve in a more open and dispersed way.”

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Large companies like Alibaba have gone from being “part of a quest for national greatness to being a potential threat to the preeminence of the party,” Schell said.

Aaron Friedberg, a China expert and politics professor at Princeton University, said Xi’s desire to rein in large, independent companies runs counter to his other big goal — boosting China’s technological might.

“The most dynamic companies in China since the beginning of reform and opening up have been nominally private, not state-owned, enterprises,” he said. “And if they really want to become innovative, certainly the view of most Western economists is they are going to have to let the private sector have more space.”

There is a view among China’s leadership, however, that heavy state investment and goal-setting also have boosted China’s technological rise and that the Communist Party can have its cake and eat it, too, Friedberg added.

The theory goes, “We’re going to have a bigger role in driving and directing innovation because it’s so urgent for strategic reasons. And, yes, we’re going to have private companies, but we’re going to keep them under control,” Friedberg said.

Eva Dou and Gerry Shih contributed to this report.