“Missing” Jack Ma’s first public appearance via video link!

Amid reports speculating about Alibaba founder and billionaire Jack Ma's whereabouts, Chinese state media has shared a video of him 'virtually' meeting a hundred rural teachers across the country on Wednesday. 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.
Jack 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.
However, he 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. Jack 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. 
In October last year, Speaking at a forum attended by some of China’s most powerful figures in politics and finance, Jack Ma heavily criticized the “pawnshop mentality” of Chinese banks, and accused global authorities’ old-school financial regulation of slowing down innovation. The criticism eventually reached Chinese president Xi Jinping, who was furious about the remarks and personally ordered the suspension.  
When it came to his business, Ma’s determination could even sound like a challenge to authorities. “If someone has to go to jail, I’ll go,” Ma told colleagues when they first launched Alipay, at a time when China didn’t have clear rules on third-party payments services. And in what seems unthinkable for a Chinese entrepreneur today, Ma said at 2015 an event in Hong Kong, when Alibaba was setting up a fund for young entrepreneurs, that it would not exclude those who participated in Occupy Central protests the previous year to demand the right to elect the city’s leader. Ma's disappearance from public view over the past two months has sparked speculation about his whereabouts among many western media outlets.
 

- Prabhakar Purandare

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