Jack Ma has resurfaced in a video praising China’s teachers, marking the first time the billionaire has been seen in public since Ant Group’s planned $37bn initial public offering was halted nearly three months ago.
The Chinese tech entrepreneur and founder of ecommerce group Alibaba dropped out of public view after criticising the country’s regulators and state-owned banks in late October, prompting speculation over his whereabouts.
Following the comments, officials dressed down Mr Ma and regulators halted the IPO of Ant, the payments group he controls, which was set to be the world’s largest.
Mr Ma also skipped the filming of a TV talent show he created for African entrepreneurs in November, which he had been set to judge.
Alibaba’s Hong Kong-traded shares rose more than 8 per cent after the video emerged on Wednesday.
“My colleagues and I have been studying and thinking, and we have become more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare,” said Mr Ma, according to a transcript of his remarks posted on a news portal backed by the government of China’s Zhejiang province, where Alibaba is based.
But in a sign of the continued regulatory scrutiny of Mr Ma’s business empire, later on Wednesday China proposed new stricter rules for payments businesses, Ant’s main business driver.
The draft rules from China’s central bank called for tighter control of users’ payments data, greater sharing of data with regulators while also setting the stage for possible antitrust action against Ant and Tencent, which runs Wechat Pay. Regulators would be empowered to breakup payments groups abusing their market position.
Ke Yan, an equity analyst at DZT Research in Singapore, said: “For the market, it’s a good signal that Jack is still alive and kicking.” He said the video reassured foreign investors over worst-case scenarios, such as a possible nationalisation of Alibaba or Mr Ma’s permanent disappearance.
Mr Ma’s video came as Alibaba faces an antitrust investigation that has hit its shares and the tech group tries to raise billions of dollars in a bond offering.
The antitrust probe was announced on December 24, just weeks after the Chinese Communist party’s politburo said it would crack down on monopoly abuses and the “disorderly expansion of capital”. China’s central bank issued a rare public rebuke of Ant Group on December 26.
During Mr Ma’s almost three-month absence from public view, rumours swirled that he may have left China. Many of his friends insisted he was still in the country and communicating freely but needed to keep a low profile as Ant and Alibaba’s negotiations with regulators continued.
The wealth of Mr Ma, one of China’s richest people, has fallen from $61bn to $52.9bn following his speech in October, according to Bloomberg data.
In the video, a smiling Mr Ma did not address his whereabouts over the past three months. Alibaba did not immediately respond to a question on his location.
It included a segment that showed Mr Ma visiting a school last week in the rural outskirts of Hangzhou that his foundation had rebuilt.
Mr Ma said in the video it was the “duty and responsibility of our generation of business operators” to support China’s rural teachers and education.
“There was a proof of life need here,” said Duncan Clark, author of a book on Mr Ma and head of a Beijing-based advisory firm. “They clearly needed a setting which had nothing to do with finance or anything sensitive. It doesn’t get more politically correct than rural education.”
A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation said Mr Ma had “participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher initiative event on January 20”.
His charitable foundation has focused over the past year on Covid-19 relief efforts in China and globally. Mr Ma has been hailed as a hero in Africa for donating medical supplies to every country on the continent.
In recent years, other Chinese billionaires caught up in high-profile disputes with the government have temporarily disappeared or sought to shift attention to their charity work.
After Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group was forced to rein in an aggressive overseas acquisitions binge in 2017, the property and entertainment tycoon invested in “patriotic” theme parks, some of them in poor rural areas.
China’s President Xi Jinping has prioritised poverty elimination as one of his administration’s top objectives.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing
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