Speculation Grows Around Jack Ma’s Apparent Disappearance

Since condemning China’s regulatory system in an October speech, the billionaire has vanished from public life.

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Social media speculation is mounting over the whereabouts of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who has not made been seen or heard from in more than two months.

Ma, co-founder and former chairman of eCommerce giant Alibaba, is known widely as China’s most high-profile entrepreneur and (until recently) its wealthiest man, with a net worth of over $50 billion according to Bloomberg. However, in late October he reportedly earned the ire of China’s president, Xi Jinping, after delivering a speech at the Bund Summit in Shanghai deriding Chinese regulators for stifling innovation in China’s financial system.

Shortly after the speech, Ma and senior executives from Alibaba spin-off Ant Group were summoned to Beijing for questioning. Ant’s planned dual listing on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges was vetoed by the government days later, scuttling the largest IPO in corporate history. Antitrust investigations were also launched against Alibaba.

Ma has not been seen in public since. The mogul’s last known appearance was during a livestreamed event on 31 October for the opening ceremony of the annual Chinese shopping event Double 11.

Rumours began to mount last week after Ma failed to appear for a filming of “Africa’s Business Heroes”, the television program he created, and showrunners removed all mention of him from its promotional material. An Alibaba spokesperson attributed Ma’s non-attendance to a “schedule conflict”. A hashtag on Chinese social media claiming that Ma was banned from leaving the country was censored.

Though speculation continues to spread, observers have been wary of drawing early conclusions. Jeffery Halley, a senior market analyst for Asia-Pacific at Oanda, told Fortune that there was not enough evidence to claim that Jack Ma had been detained by the government, and that he was more likely “choosing to keep an extremely low profile while he lets the people who work for him work with the regulators to come to an acceptable conclusion.”

It is not unusual for Chinese business executives to be detained. Last year, billionaire real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang disappeared and sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges after criticising the CCP’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and appearing to call Xi Jinping a clown.

Though Ma stepped down as chairman of Alibaba Group in September 2019, he remains the firm’s largest individual shareholder with a stake of almost 5%, and holds a controlling interest in Ant. Alibaba’s Hong Kong- and NYSE-listed shares have dropped 25% and 26% respectively since his speech in Shanghai.

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