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Jack Ma Out, Rival In: Ali Baba Co-founder Struck Off from Chinese List of Tech Icons

In this May 15, 2019, file photo, founder of Alibaba group Jack Ma arrives for the Tech for Good summit in Paris. (AP Photo)

In this May 15, 2019, file photo, founder of Alibaba group Jack Ma arrives for the Tech for Good summit in Paris. (AP Photo)

Beijing’s official newspaper ran the brief editorial on the same day Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was set for unveiling its earnings. Jack Ma had come in conflict with the CCP after it flayed the government’s 'pawnshop' financial regulators and state-owned banks in an incendiary speech in Shanghai back in October.

The Chinese state media on Tuesday published a list of its pioneering tech giants, but there was a striking absence of one tycoon – Jack Ma. More telling was its commentary on the Ali Baba’s co-founder archrival Pony M, who the Shanghai Securities News hailed for “rewriting the mobile age”.

Beijing’s official newspaper ran the brief editorial on the same day Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was set for unveiling its earnings, Bloomberg reported. In the list, BYD Co. Chairman Wang Chuanfu, Xiaomi Corp. co-founder Lei Jun and Huawei Technologies Co.'s Ren Zhengfei, found mention among others.

"A generation of Chinese entrepreneurs emerged from the rigid structures of our old economic system with the desire to escape poverty and passion to achieve business ambitions. They have breathed new life into China's economic reforms," the newspaper, which is backed by the official Xinhua News Agency, wrote.

One of China's unusually vocal and outspoken tycoons, Ma had come in conflict with the CCP after it flayed the government’s 'pawnshop' financial regulators and state-owned banks in an incendiary speech in Shanghai back in October. Further, calling for reform of a system that 'stifled business innovation', he likened global banking regulations to an 'old people's club'.

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Recently, the Chinese state media has shared a video of him 'virtually' meeting a hundred rural teachers across the country. The normally voluble Jack Ma has been staying out of the public eye. He earlier cancelled a TV appearance and avoided social media. That had prompted a flurry of speculation about what might have happened to Ma, China's biggest global business celebrity and a symbol of its tech boom.

Ma, a former English teacher, founded Alibaba Group in 1999, when China had few internet users. Online payments service Alipay launched five years later, before regulators said such businesses would be allowed. Both long shots grew to dominate their industries. His latest gambit backfired after he called regulators too conservative in the October 24 speech and urged them to be more innovative. They halted the impending stock market debut of Ant Group, an online finance platform that grew out of Alipay. Alibaba’s share price sank, possibly costing Ma his status as China’s richest tycoon.

Beijing has launched a campaign to curtail the growing power of private technology corporations in almost every facet of Chinese life, as exemplified by the ubiquity of Tencent's WeChat messaging service. Shares in Tencent and Xiaomi rose more than 2 per cent Tuesday.

Since then, the normally voluble Ma has stayed out of the public eye, canceled a TV appearance and avoided social media. That has prompted a flurry of speculation about what might happen to Ma, China's biggest global business celebrity and a symbol of its tech boom. Spokespeople for Alibaba and Ant haven’t respond to media questions about why Ma hasn't appeared in public.

Ma, 56, stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019 but is part of the Alibaba Partnership, a 36-member group with the right to nominate a majority of its board of directors. He is one of the biggest shareholders. Ma irked regulators with the speech at a business conference in Shanghai attended by some of the regulators he was criticising. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan also was in the audience.

That clashed with the ruling party’s marathon campaign to reduce surging debt that has prompted fears about a possible financial crisis and led international rating agencies to cut Beijing’s credit rating for government borrowing.

On November 3, regulators suspended Ant’s market debut. It would have been 2020’s biggest, raising some $37 billion. Alibaba's CEO later praised regulators in a possible attempt to repair relations. But Ma said nothing. The last posting on his Sina Weibo social media account is dated October 17.

first published:February 02, 2021, 11:02 IST