Tech billionaire Jack Ma, second left, was dressed down after he made a candid speech criticising China’s regulators and its state-owned banks
Tech billionaire Jack Ma, second left, was dressed down after he made a candid speech criticising China’s regulators and its state-owned banks © Jack Ma Foundation

Jack Ma has disappeared as the public face of an African talent show he created, in a hint of the difficulties he is facing after a fall from grace in China.

Mr Ma was replaced as a judge in the final of Africa’s Business Heroes, a television contest for budding entrepreneurs, his photograph was removed from the judging webpage, and he was conspicuously left out of a promotional video.

The final took place in November, shortly after the Chinese tech billionaire made a candid speech criticising China’s regulators and its state-owned banks. In the wake of the speech, Mr Ma was dressed down by officials in Beijing and the $37bn initial public offering of his company Ant Group was suspended. He has not been seen in public since.

A spokesperson for Alibaba, which was founded by Mr Ma, said: “Due to a schedule conflict Mr Ma could no longer be part of the finale judge panel of Africa’s Business Heroes earlier this year (2020).”

One contestant in the competition said she had been star-struck when she pitched her business to Mr Ma in an earlier round. “You can’t imagine,” she said. But by the time of the final, Mr Ma had been replaced by Lucy Peng, an executive at Alibaba.

“There was something going on in China with Jack Ma or something, so (Lucy) also came in as well,” the contestant said.

Screenshot from Wayback Machine of website on Oct 21, before the Shanghai speech
Screenshot of website from Dec 29

While the final took place in November, the television broadcast of the show has been delayed until spring, according to two contestants, and one promotional video at the end of November makes no mention of Mr Ma.

Last year, contestants pitched their ideas directly to Mr Ma as they aimed to win huge prizes offered by his charity, the Jack Ma Foundation.

Mr Ma is one of China’s wealthiest men. In recent years, his work for the UN and global charity activities has brought a softer edge to China’s global image. 

As the coronavirus pandemic deepened this spring, he donated tens of millions of face masks globally. He paired up with his longtime right-hand man Joe Tsai to donate 2,000 ventilators to New York as hospitals there forecast dire shortfalls — prompting a thanks from both US President Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In August, Mr Ma tweeted his congratulations to the 20 entrepreneurs pitching their way through his foundation’s months-long contest to crown a second annual batch of African “Business Heroes”. 

“I can’t wait to meet them!” he said. It was one of his last tweets.

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