If Elon Musk vanished from sight for more than two months -- at his most insufferable, I'm sure we've all wished that would happen -- investors would be sending out a search party. Where is the figurehead who has led their company and its shares to unprecedented heights?
His Chinese counterpart, Jack Ma, has now vanished from vision for more than two months, with his company under investigation by the Chinese authorities. There is no word of his whereabouts. Here in Asia, we're wondering where China's poster-boy entrepreneur has gone.
It's rumored, and quite likely, that Ma has been told not to leave China. He may well be keeping his head under the parapets of his own accord. Whatever the case, the situation is so serious and politically charged that the Beijing government is now reportedly censoring news in the Chinese media about the antitrust probe into Ma's baby.
Ma, the co-founder and figurehead of the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) , was last seen on Oct. 31, when he took part in the livestreamed gala extravaganza to kick off China's festival of spending, "Double 11." That was exactly one week after he gave a speech at a financial conference in Shanghai in which he criticized China's banking regulators and industry, calling out the state-run banks for having a "pawnshop mentality."
Bad move. Several highly influential bankers and regulators were in attendance, spluttering into their Nongfu Spring bottled water. Behind the scenes, we hear, Chinese President Xi Jinping was furious.
Xi had already met privately a couple of years back with Ma and the founder of video-game maker and WeChat app operator Tencent Holdings (TCEHY), Pony Ma (who is no relation), to remind China's two richest people and most-famous executives that their companies operate only at the behest of the Communist Party. Xi, he needed not remind them, is the only sheriff in town.
Days after that Shanghai speech, Ma and the two top executives at Ant Group, the company Ma founded to process payments for Alibaba's Web sites, had been hauled in for questioning about their free-wheeling financial model, which extends consumer loans to shoppers and offers a suite of third-party financial services. On Nov. 3 Ant was blocked from listing its shares for the first time, only two days before what was scheduled at US$37 billion to be the largest initial public offering in world history.
President Xi personally quashed the IPO, according to The Wall Street Journal. That rings true, since the Shanghai stock exchange had already cleared the offering before then ordering that it be pulled at the last minute. Xi "has displayed a diminishing tolerance" for big private businesses that wield capital and influence -- and jumped-up executives who challenge the iron rule of the man dubbed China's "Emperor for Life."
Chinese regulators are now seeking to restructure and possibly break up Ant Group, which runs the ubiquitous Alipay digital-wallet app. They are also concerned about business practices not only at Alibaba but also its rivals such as JD.com (JD) and Pinduoduo (PDD) . Chinese e-commerce sites have a notorious "1 from 2" policy for many merchants that forces them to agreements to sell their goods only via the Web site of one platform.
Ant is getting kicked in the other shin, too. U.S. President Donald Trump is making one of his last actions in office an executive order on Tuesday to ban U.S. individuals and companies from transacting with Alipay and seven other Chinese apps, including Tencent's WeChat Pay and QQ Wallet. Trump said the apps are able to capture "vast swaths" of personal and sensitive information from users, making them a national-security threat.
Ma suddenly finds himself a political persona non grata. The Chinese government's propaganda arm has issued a directive to news outlets to toe the official line on the investigation into Alibaba, and not to engage in any kind of analysis of the events without permission, the Financial Times reports today, citing two people who read the order.
Several online blog posts discussing Ma's whereabouts have been censored and taken down, according to the FT. What's more, an online publication backed by Alibaba that published an editorial warning about excessive punishment of Chinese tech companies was forced to cease operations for a month.
Ma did not show up for his own TV show in November. He personally heard the pitches from entrepreneurs looking to become Africa's Business Heroes, in the show by that name. But when the final episode aired, he was nowhere to be seen, his place taken by an Alibaba executive. An Alibaba spokesperson said "Jack Ma had to miss the final due to a scheduling conflict."
Ma is not on the official list of people who are prevented from leaving China. But Bloomberg reports that he was in December told not to leave the country. A hashtag about him being banned from leaving was scrubbed by censors from China's Twitter-like Weibo (WB) app.
Musk may be the richest man in America, and indeed now the world. But Ma, who loves the limelight, is his direct equivalent in China, his US$65.6 billion fortune making him the richest man there. Ma stepped down as executive chairman from Alibaba in September 2019, but his shadow over the company looms large, while he is a mythic figure among Chinese investors chasing the next "unicorn" startup to turn into a billion-dollar company.
There's a danger for the Communist Party in taking on Ma. While political rights are nonexistent in China, personal-property and commercial rights are well-protected. Setting Alibaba in the party's sights will spook other successful entrepreneurs, most of whom already attempt to secret large chunks of their wealth overseas, out of the hands of the Communist Party.
Still, the Communist Party will usually find a way of bringing you down if they want you to fall. Bribery and corruption allegations are the normal charges leveled.
Temporarily, it seems, they've already got their wish with Mr. Ma. I'd bet he is keeping quiet after opening his mouth in Shanghai got him into such trouble in Shanghai. But when and where will he surface next?!