Jack Ma is the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and its financial subsidiary Ant Group. He disappeared for three months after criticising the Chinese regime. Who is this extraordinary entrepreneur and what happened to him?
Jack Ma is one of China's richest and most influential men. Founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and its financial subsidiary Ant Group, he has revolutionised the digital economy in his country and around the world. But his atypical career path and outspokenness have also landed him in trouble with the Chinese authorities, who made him disappear for three months after a critical speech. Who is this extraordinary entrepreneur and what happened to him?
From poverty to success
Jack Ma, whose real name is Ma Yun, was born in 1964 in Hangzhou, a city 200 km south of Shanghai. Born into a modest family, he developed a passion for English as a child, going to the city park every day to chat with foreign tourists. He graduated in English from Hangzhou Normal University in 1988 and became a professor at the same university.
In 1995, he accompanied a Chinese delegation to the United States as an interpreter and discovered the Internet. He decided to set up his first website, China Pages, offering services to small Chinese businesses. But he came up against competition from the government portal China Telecom and the regime's censorship.
In 1999, he founded Alibaba with 17 other people in his flat. The site puts Chinese suppliers in touch with buyers from all over the world. The success was dazzling: in 2004, Alibaba was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and became the world leader in online commerce.
Jack Ma did not stop there: he created Taobao, an auction site that competes with eBay in China, Alipay, an online payment system that rivals PayPal, and Ant Group, a financial platform offering credit, insurance and investment services.
In 2014, Alibaba completed the biggest IPO in history on Wall Street, raising $25 billion. Jack Ma became the richest man in China and one of the richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of over $50 billion.
A provocative style
Jack Ma is known for his provocative style and showmanship. He does not hesitate to criticise the traditional Chinese banking system, which he considers too rigid and conservative. He defends a more innovative and inclusive vision of finance, based on data and artificial intelligence.
He is also very close to his employees, whom he calls his "Aliren" (Alibaba people). The entrepreneur organises giant parties to celebrate the group's anniversaries, at which he appears dressed as a rock star or manga character. He advocates a corporate culture based on hard work, passion and creativity.
He is also known for his philanthropic activities, setting up a foundation to support education and the environment in China and around the world. He was also involved in the fight against Covid-19, sending donations of masks and tests to several countries.
A mysterious disappearance
But Jack Ma alienated the Chinese regime in October 2020, when he gave a speech to a group of top financial executives in Shanghai. He openly criticised the country's economic and monetary policy, accusing it of stifling innovation and imposing overly strict rules on digital players.
His speech angered President Xi Jinping, who ordered the suspension of Ant Group's IPO, scheduled for 5 November. This was to have been the biggest IPO in history, with a valuation of 280 billion dollars.
Jack Ma then disappeared from the public eye for three months, fuelling speculation about his fate. Some media reported that he had been placed under house arrest, detained or even eliminated. Others suggested that he was deliberately hiding to avoid reprisals.
He finally reappeared on 20 January 2021, during a video conference with around a hundred teachers from rural areas of China. He gave a forced smile and a conventional speech, making no mention of his situation or his business.
A refuge in Japan
Since this reappearance, Jack Ma has kept a very low profile. He handed over the chairmanship of Alibaba in 2019 and reduced his stake in the group. He has also agreed to bow to the demands of the Chinese authorities, who have imposed restructuring and stricter regulation on Ant Group.
According to the Japanese newspaper Nikkei, Jack Ma left China to take refuge in Japan, where he has a residence in Tokyo. There he is said to have joined his family and to be devoting himself to his passions, such as painting and meditation.
Jack Ma nevertheless remains one of the most admired and inspiring entrepreneurs of his generation. His exceptional career is a testament to his ability to overcome obstacles and innovate in a complex and changing environment.