After Skipping His Own Talent TV Show, Speculation Swirls Around Alibaba Founder Jack Ma

The Chinese billionaire has over the last few months been under the government's harsh scrutiny.

New Delhi: Questions are being raised over the whereabouts of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba Group, who has been absent from pubic view over the last few months.

Over the past several months, the Chinese government has cracked down on his company, Ant Group Co Ltd. The financial services and e-commerce conglomerate traces its beginnings to Alipay, which was launched in 2004 as a payment service, and is 33% owned by Alibaba.

According to a report in The Financial Times , Ma did not appear on the finale of a talent show that he created, ‘Africa’s Business Heroes’, in November, and a company executive took his place as judge.

A company spokesperson, when contacted, attributed the no-show to a “scheduling conflict”.

Since then, Ma has not made a single public appearance, stirring speculation around  the Chinese entrepreneur.

China has been cracking down on anticompetitive behaviour in the country’s booming Internet sector. Regulators last week announced an antitrust investigation into Ant’s sister firm Alibaba and ordered Ant to shake up its lending and other consumer finance operations.

Ma had been advised by the Chinese government to stay in the country, Bloomberg News had earlier reported.

“I think he’s been told to lay low,” Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA China told Reuters. “This is a pretty unique situation, more linked to the sheer scale of Ant and the sensitivities over financial regulation,” he said.

On October 24, Ma made a speech in Shanghai where he criticised China’s regulatory system, alleging that it was ‘stifling innovation‘. About a week later, Ant’s IPO was suspended even though it had previously got the green light from the appropriate regulatory bodies.

Ant is considering folding most of its financial businesses, including consumer lending, into a holding company that would be tightly regulated like traditional financial firms, Reuters reported last Tuesday.

Reuters also reported in early December that Ant was considering selling its 30% stake in Indian digital payment processor Paytm amid tensions between the two Asian neighbours and a toughening competitive landscape.

Paytm and Ant had at that time said the information was incorrect. Ant referred Reuters to its previous statement while Paytm did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Meanwhile, The Asia Times Financial noted that online vitriol websites towards Ma has ramped up dramatically in the last month.

“Usually known as “Uncle Horse” – as his Chinese surname ‘Ma’ means horse – he has recently been damned as a money-grabbing ‘vampire’ who exploits the poor, in state media outlets strongly criticising him, even the People’s Daily,” the report noted.

(With Reuters inputs)