Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) (HK:9988) figurehead Jack Ma has taken on three new academic roles as he looks to forge a path for himself, essentially in exile from the company he helped to found.
Tokyo College today announced that Ma has joined the institution as a visiting professor. The college is a relatively new offshoot of the University of Tokyo, formed in 2019 to cultivate collaboration on research with international institutions and to invite "distinguished researchers" to the Tokyo campus.
Ma on April 1 also accepted an appointment as an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong, although that position is also freshly announced. He has taken on a three-year role as a professor of management and strategy, researching finance, agriculture and entrepreneurial innovation. The position doesn't involve any public lectures or speeches, according to the South China Morning Post, which Alibaba owns.
Ma also last week joined Tel Aviv University as a visiting professor. The Israeli institution is announcing that Ma will contribute to the university's research on sustainable agriculture and food. He received an honorary doctorate from the university in 2018.
Ma worked as an English teacher at Hangzhou Dianzi University in his first job after graduating with a degree in English-language education from Hangzhou Teacher's Institute, in his hometown. In his spare time, he assembled a group of 18 people who began Alibaba, at first as an e-commerce site for wholesalers.
Ma said after stepping down as executive chairman and retiring from Alibaba in 2019 that he wants to pursue his interest in education. But it is also a change that was forced upon him, after the Chinese Communist Party mounted an attack on him personally as well as Alibaba. That came to a head when Chinese President Xi Jinping intervened personally at the last minute to prevent Alibaba's e-payments spinoff Ant Group from going public.
"Professor Ma" will now be furthering the efforts of the Jack Ma Foundation, which he set up in 2014 to work on education, entrepreneurship and environmental protection.
The foundation said in a statement that Ma is honored to accept the Hong Kong University invitation "as we believe the appointment will put his entrepreneurial experience and ideas to effective use."
Tokyo College says Ma will hold seminars with the students and faculty of the University of Tokyo to "share his rich experience and pioneering knowledge on entrepreneurship, corporate management and innovation." He will also conduct joint projects with University of Tokyo researchers in the field of sustainable agriculture and food production.
Ma has been living in self-imposed exile outside mainland China, as I explained in November, spending much of last year in Tokyo. He has also recently visited Thailand, the United States, Israel, Australia and Spain, at least part of his time looking at agriculture. But he was lured back to mainland China for a trip to his hometown. He returned in March at the request of China's new Premier Li Qiang, visiting a school that Alibaba's founders helped establish to discuss Artificial Intelligence.
Li is rightly concerned that Ma's preference to live outside mainland China is damaging confidence among China's entrepreneurs and business owners. It's noteworthy that the Tokyo visiting professorship, the Tel Aviv post, and the honorary professorship in Hong Kong, where he has a home, give him an excellent excuse for spending more time beyond the mainland's borders.
"After a hiatus from the world of education, Mr. Ma looks forward to returning to campus life and collaborating with faculty and students in his appointment, while focusing his research on education and business innovation," the foundation stated about the Hong Kong post.
Ma's troubles came to a head with a speech in Shanghai in October 2020 where he criticized China's financial industry as old-fashioned and having a "pawnshop mentality," while top executives from China's state-owned Big Four banks and financial regulators were in the crowd. That left the Beijing leadership fuming, Communist officials who were already concerned that Big Tech companies were wielding too much influence and power.
After the forced cancellation of the Ant listing, which had been approved by regulators and the exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Ma vanished from the public eye, having previously enjoyed the limelight. He reappeared for the first time at a rural school in China, hinting at his new focus. Communist officials embarked on an investigation into all Chinese Big Tech companies, clipping their wings, while also stating that highly successful companies and entrepreneurs should give back to the country through philanthropic ventures.
Alibaba was in April 2021 fined a record US$2.8 billion by Chinese authorities for engaging in anticompetitive behavior. A sequence of fines followed against its tech peers.
Ma was for many years the richest person in China. But Alibaba's issues, which prompted a dramatic fall in its share price, have come at the same time as the ascension of other tech startups, with Ma's US$23.7 billion fortune now ranking him No. 7 on China's "rich list," according to the real-time ranking from Forbes, and No. 65 in the world.
Alibaba shares are down from a peak of US$310 in October 2020 to US$85 now, although they've recovered by 32.9% from their very bottom at the height of China's economically disruptive fight against Covid-19. Two rallies this year have faded, with the pace of China's recovery anything but assured since global demand for China-made goods is now uncertain.
It's clear that Ma will continue to distance himself from the companies he helped establish. Ma received an honorary doctorate in social sciences from Hong Kong University in 2018, the same year he was also honored by Tel Aviv University. The two universities cooperate on the HKU-Tel Aviv Innovation Hub, which offers executive programs, accredited courses and educational tourism in Israel to students and alumni of HKU's business school and executives from Hong Kong and Guangdong Province.
Both the University of Tokyo and Hong Kong University are the leading institutions in their home market, according to the QS World University Rankings for 2023. However, QS rates the National University of Singapore as the top institution in Asia, just ahead of Peking University and Tsinghua University, both in Beijing.
Ma has not yet accepted a post at any mainland Chinese universities. Professors have also come under attack inside China in recent years, with President Xi intent on ensuring that Communist Party loyalty comes above any high-and-minded free-thinking on politics or academic freedom.
While the three-year position in Hong Kong leaves it open how much time he will spend on campus, the job in the Japanese capital appears to be more hands-on. Ma's appointment as a visiting professor in Tokyo runs through October, the university said, but is renewable on an annual basis.