Jack Ma (馬雲), the billionaire founder of Chinese Internet behemoth Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (阿里巴巴), yesterday made his first public appearance in more than two months, ending weeks of speculation about his whereabouts.
Ma — one of China’s richest people with a fortune estimated at about US$58 billion — disappeared from the public eye in early November last year, when he was hauled in front of regulators for an October speech critical of China’s outdated financial system.
Shortly afterward, the record-breaking US$37 billion initial public offering (IPO) of his financial group Ant Group Co (螞蟻集團) was spiked at the last minute by Chinese regulators in a shock move that some saw as retaliation for Ma’s outspokenness.
However, a video clip of Ma giving a congratulatory speech to rural teachers as part of an annual awards ceremony organized by his charity was published on social media by Chinese financial news outlets yesterday morning.
In the speech, Ma praised China’s poverty alleviation efforts, a central target of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and vowed to dedicate more efforts towards helping rural teachers.
“My colleagues and I ... are even more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech published by Chinese news site Tianmu News.
“China has ... entered a new stage of development, and is moving towards common prosperity,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation, his charitable arm, confirmed that Ma “participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event.”
Since the Ant IPO was quashed, Chinese regulators have launched an anti-monopoly probe into Alibaba.
Alibaba and Ant said they would cooperate with regulatory requests.
In related news, Citigroup Inc’s private bank said that wealthy investors had rushed to offload stock in Alibaba.
“A large number” of the bank’s ultra-rich clients from the Europe, the Middle East and Africa region cut or exited their holdings in China’s largest e-commerce firm in December last year, after reports of the probe emerged, Citi Private Bank’s Lab for Family Offices said in a report released on Tuesday.
China’s stock market previously attracted significant inflows from the firm’s wealthiest customers in the second half of the year, it said.
Once hailed as drivers of economic prosperity and symbols of the country’s technological prowess, Alibaba and rivals, including Tencent Holdings Ltd (騰訊), face increasing pressure from regulators after amassing hundreds of millions of users and gaining influence over almost every aspect of daily life in China.
The Chinese central bank last week said that Ant Group is working on a timetable to overhaul its business while ensuring operations continue, underscoring the determination to rein in Ma’s business and offering little clue on how far the firm needs to go to assuage Beijing.
Ant Group makes up more than a quarter of Ma’s US$52.9 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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