Economy

Jack Ma: His appearance shows the power of the Chinese government

REUTERS / Aly Song

The Chinese billionaire Jack Ma spoke up with a video message. It was the Alibaba founder’s first public sign of life in almost three months.

In China it happens again and again that celebrities and government critics suddenly disappear from the public eye. Some forever. Others then reappear just as suddenly. Tax evaders then apologize to the Chinese people, government critics announce their withdrawal or have to go to prison for many years. Usually there is no mention of why they disappeared or where they were.

It’s the same with Jack Ma. In the video clip, which lasts only 50 seconds and is circulated by Chinese state media, he speaks to 100 teachers in rural areas. In addition, the former English teacher announces that he wants to take care of education and social issues even more.

Jack Ma is one of the most famous Chinese people abroad

You could also call it a show of force by the Chinese government. Because at his last public appearance at the end of October, Ma had sharply criticized Beijing. In early November, the authorities then stopped the planned IPO of the Alibaba financial subsidiary Ant Group. It should have been the biggest IPO of all time. Alibaba also got caught in the crossfire on another front, which is now also being investigated by the Chinese antitrust authorities for alleged monopoly offenses.

Jack Ma founded the online retailer Alibaba, which is at least as present in China as Amazon in Germany or the USA. Ma is one of the richest people in Asia. He stepped down from the top of Alibaba in autumn 2019 after 20 years, but should continue to pull the strings in the background. Jack Ma is one of the most famous Chinese people abroad, as he liked to give interviews and take part in conferences and was noticed with extravagant appearances and cheeky sayings. For months there had been speculation in the international media about where Ma had gone. News of the video has now caused Alibaba’s share price, which is listed in Hong Kong, to rise 10 percent.

One of the most widely used payment apps in China, Alipay, also goes back to his company and is part of the Ant Group. On the one hand, this gives the group a lot of market power and plays a major role in the everyday life of many Chinese. On the other hand, the company is also subject to strict limits due to the strict regulations in the country. In his speech before his disappearance, Ma had criticized the fact that the authorities prevented innovations in the financial system by being too risk-averse and that the banks acted like “pawn shops”. His allegations are not new, Ma had already made them publicly in 2013 in a similar form. At that time they had no consequences.

The Chinese government fears the loss of power

Whether the public criticism was the cause of Jack Ma’s disappearance or whether he and the Ant Group Beijing had simply become too powerful is likely to remain the subject of speculation. But the Chinese government’s penalties for what they see as wrongdoing are harsh, and they don’t stop at powerful managers and billionaires. Finance manager Lai Xiaomin was sentenced to death in early January. The court justified the judgment with the fact that Lai was “extremely greedy”, reported “Forbes”. There are many other examples. Xiao Jianhua, founder of the Tomorrow Group investment firm and one of the richest Chinese people, was kidnapped in a hotel in Hong Kong in 2017 and has not turned up since.

The New York Times suspects that there is also another consideration behind this: The concentration of wealth to a few wealthy people could endanger peace in the country – similar to what happened in the western industrialized countries in recent years. In addition, it is becoming increasingly difficult for younger generations to advance socially. The promise of growing prosperity is the pact Beijing made with its citizens in exchange for their all-encompassing power. The government therefore fears dissatisfaction and frustration among the people as a loss of power.

China is also facing an acid test. On the one hand, the country needs smart, courageous entrepreneurs and innovations. On the other hand, the government is hindering this with its control, which was tightened again under President Xi Jinping, and thus also frightens foreign countries. A tech company like Huawei is now met with very suspiciousness there. Because in China, the government has power and control, no matter how often a Chinese company asserts its independence.

This is Jack Ma’s life

cm/with material from the dpa

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