Alibaba founder Jack Ma seen in China after months of absence

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

The Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, has visited a school in mainland China after months during which he made no public appearances in the country because of a government crackdown on the powerful tech sector.

He is thought to have remained outside China for more than a year from late 2021 after regulators in the country tightened oversight of his businesses due to outspoken criticism from the tech entrepreneur.

Ma visited Yungu school in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered. A social media post contained pictures and video of Ma touring the school, which is funded by Alibaba.

The billionaire had been one of China’s most prominent business figures, but he faced a stern rebuke from China’s authoritarian rulers after criticising regulators and the banking industry shortly before the planned blockbuster stock market flotation of the fintech group Ant Financial. China blocked the float shortly after the speech, in a move that was widely interpreted by analysts as retaliation for his comments.

Since then, Ma, whose net worth is $33bn (£27bn) according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has kept a low profile. The Financial Times in November reported that he was living in Tokyo, while he has also been photographed in Australia and Thailand.

However, the extended absence of one of the country’s most prominent business people had been seen by the business community as a sign of the continued dominance of China’s Communist party over industry.

In recent months, the billionaire tech banker Bao Fan became the latest high-profile businessperson to disappear from public life. His bank, China Renaissance Holdings, last month said he was cooperating with an investigation by Chinese authorities.

A return to China for Ma could herald an easing of government pressure on private companies and promote a more business-friendly attitude. Bloomberg News on Monday reported that Chinese authorities had tried to persuade Ma to return.

Ma was an English teacher before founding Alibaba. He discussed the potential effects of the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT, and expressed a desire to return to teaching one day, according to a translation of an article posted on Monday by the school on its WeChat social media channel.

Alibaba is one of China’s largest private companies and one of the few businesses that can rival the US tech sector for size. Ma started the Alibaba website to link Chinese exporters to small businesses around the world, and later expanded it to other areas such as payments, consumer retail and cloud technology. The Chinese government in January acquired “golden shares” in Alibaba and its rival Tencent that will allow it to exert control over the groups.

The future of Ant Group, which started as part of Alibaba, remains uncertain. The company in January said Ma would cede control of it, potentially opening the way to a renewed effort at a public listing.