- Sam Peach
- BBC Radio Documentaries Unit
Jack Ma, the founder of the online sales portal Alibaba, was about to become the richest man in China.
In November 2020, the night before closing another of his successful businesses, the billionaire suddenly disappeared.
Alibaba, his company, had started out of his apartment and had become one of the most recognized technology brands in the world.
Currently, its portal has about 800 million users and its services range from purchasing and data storage to artificial intelligence.
Also, Ma is known for his flamboyant presence. and his publicity stunts.
He has organized parties for thousands of his employees, with special musical numbers performed by himself.
Its latest business venture, the Ant Group, leads the digital payment market in China through the Alipay financial transaction app.
The company intends to revolutionize banking in China, changing hands the power of traditional institutions.
The October 24, 2020 in Shanghai, the Ant Gruop was set to launch what would be the largest IPO in history.
Before this event, Ma addressed a meeting of high-profile people in the country with a rather controversial speech criticizing the Chinese financial system.
After that speech, the businessman was not seen publicly again for three months. Ma was rumored to have been under house arrest or detained by the Chinese authorities.
Some doubted that he was still alive.
Cited by the government
In that speech, the Alibaba founder had accused Chinese banks of operating with a mentality of “pawnshop“.
He had also pointed out that the Chinese authorities were trying to “run an airport like a train station” in reference to regulations on digital finance.
These claims infuriated the banking establishment, and some reports suggest that it also caught the president’s attention. Xi Jinping.
Soon Ma and his closest colleagues were summoned to a meeting with regulators and the Ant Group’s IPO was halted.
Shares in companies owned by Ma plummeted by more than US$76.000 millones relative to its initial value.
After that meeting in November 2020, Jack Ma was not seen again for weeks.
“That day he apparently crossed the invisible red line of what can be said and done in Xi Jinping’s China,” said Christina Boutrup, a China affairs analyst who has interviewed Ma on a few occasions.
“I think it was a big surprise for him. I would never have crossed that line if I had known how bad it could go“he added.
Eventually, after three months, on January 20, 2021 Ma reappeared in a short video for a charity event.
The following month he appeared playing golf en la isla de Hainan.
“Apparently he kept a very low profile, which was really the best he could do,” explained Boutrup.
Now the Chinese government is examining its strategy to regulate tech giants and in recent days has launched an antitrust investigation against Alibaba.
And last week, a regulator said they had fined 12 companies – including Tencent and Baidu – for violating the Chinese antitrust code.
This may indicate an escalation in the entire technology sector.
China is currently being questioned by the US and other countries for its Human Rights policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province.
Some see the move to control tech superpowers as an effort to prioritize stability and control over business success.
“There are party committees [Comunista] there to remind companies that ultimately the party has power, even over powerful individuals like Jack Ma, “said Samantha Hoffman, a researcher at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy.
This control extends to state secrecy, I note.
“A company is not only responsible for doing what the party demands, but it cannot admit that it is doing what the party says if they ask it,” he added.
But other experts suggest that Alibaba and other Chinese tech giants should not be viewed in the West only through the political lens.
“China is still a developing country. I think it might be unfair to judge a developing country with the same benchmarks and merits that apply to a developed country,” says Lillian Li, author of the China technology newsletter “Chinese Characteristics. “.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.