Beijing: Jack Ma, the globe-trotting Chinese billionaire and founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, returned to China on Monday, ending more than a year-long sojourn abroad.
Ma, 58, founded Alibaba in the 1990s, and is one of China’s richest and most influential business magnates.
He has kept a low profile since November 2020, only surfacing in rare public appearances, after he publicly criticised the Xi Jinping government during a speech in Shanghai.
Ma left the Chinese mainland towards the end of 2021.
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On Monday, Ma met teachers and students at Hangzhou Yungu School, which he founded, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, which is owned by him, reported.
His return followed assurances from President Xi, under whose watch the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) in the last two years carried out a massive anti-monopoly campaign against top business houses, including Alibaba.
Besides the crackdown, several top businessmen were whisked away by the country’s security agencies, creating panic among private businesses.
Ma has a home in Hangzhou, a city near Shanghai where Alibaba is headquartered.
Since his fallout with the Chinese authorities, Ma has been spotted in various countries abroad, including Spain and the Netherlands.
Born in 1964 to a poor family, Ma, who is the most revered businessman among the Chinese, grew up to be one of the country’s richest men.
The sudden and surprise announcement by Ma in 2019 to retire stating he preferred to die at a beach than at his work table set off speculation that he was feeling the weight of the ruling CPC, which firmly exercised its control over China’s top businesses, prompting him to downsize his operations.
His retirement and the subsequent anti-monopoly crackdowns by the CPC on a host of Chinese businesses, including Tencent and ByteDance sparked speculation that the party headed by Xi is cutting the wealthy businesses to size to reduce their growing influence in China.
The Post earlier reported that the wealthy Chinese were looking for avenues to migrate after Xi won an unprecedented third five-year term in the once-in-a-five-year Congress of the CPC in October last year fearing curbs against them.
The Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), this month unanimously endorsed Xi as the President and the head of the country’s military.
Since he commenced the third term, Xi has been reassuring the private sector of friendly policies in an apparent reversal of his earlier stance.
The Chinese economy has shrunk to three per cent last year, the worst in decades, accentuated by the cracking of the whip against the private sector, besides the government’s stringent ”Zero-COVID policy.” The NPC also endorsed Xi’s close associate Li Qiang as the new Premier who from the day of his elections started a major campaign to reassure the private sector and foreign investors of a friendly and favourable environment.
Li is reportedly a close friend of Ma.
On Sunday, Xi himself assured foreign and private firms that China will steadily expand institutional opening-up with regard to rules, and regulations standards and will work with all countries and parties to share opportunities arising from it.
Although Ma has faded from public view in recent times, his whereabouts have become a litmus test for the friendliness of China’s business environment, according to Angela Zhang, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.
This was especially true after the companies he founded – including Alibaba and its fintech affiliate Ant Group – came under regulatory scrutiny amid Beijing’s intensified crackdown on the tech sector.
“The market seems to believe that the more public appearance Ma gets, the more friendly the government is towards private businesses,” Zhang told the Post.
Earlier this year, Ma was seen in Thailand as part of his study on farming and fishery, which followed a three-month stay in Japan where he looked into the operations and technology of fish farms.