Recently, media reports were rife with Alibaba founder and billionaire business tycoon Jack Ma and his reported disappearance in China. Ma has been off the radar ever since he made deprecating remarks against the Chinese regulators in a summit in October 2020 for their efforts in stifling innovation.
Ma had gone on a tirade against China’s current banking system, the financial regulatory structure of the Communist-ruled country and how it was unsuitable for his fintech giant, Ant group. Ma’s critical remarks for the Communist regime, which demands nothing more than complete and utter obedience, terminated the planned IPO of his fintech giant, Ant Group, on November 3, just two days before it was scheduled to begin trading.
Days after his unflattering opinion of the Chinese authorities, Ma was summoned to a meeting with Communist Party officials. His other venture, Alibaba is also under investigation for monopolistic behaviour, as per a statement released by the Chinese Communist Party’s market supervision arm.
And Ma has not been spotted since October. Ma was conspicuous by his absence when the billionaire was replaced as a judge in the final of his own show—Africa’s Business Heroes, a television contest for budding entrepreneurs—and his photograph was removed from the judging webpage. Apparently, he has also been conspicuously left out of a promotional video.
The grand finale of show ‘Africa’s Business Heroes’ took place in November, shortly after the Chinese tech billionaire had criticised China’s regulators and its state-owned banks. The disappearance of Jack Ma underscores the strained relationship between the billionaire business tycoon and the Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping.
Jinping has been unabashed in wielding power against those he perceives of challenging the dominance and authority of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese President has shown little tolerance towards dissenting views and has come down hard against those who have refused to conform to his worldview.
Ma’s disappearance from the public sphere is a part of a bigger design by the CCP to exact compliance and loyalty from individuals who hold great sway in shaping public opinion. It is apposite to note that Jack Ma is not the first high- profile man to have disappeared out of a thin air.
Reportedly, China legalised secret detentions back in 2013. As such, several well-known people from various walks of life including actress Fan Bingbing, ex-Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, businessman and investor Guo Guangchang, and ex-real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang were made to disappear. All of them, however, mysteriously reappeared after some time.
Chinese businessman and investor Guo Guangchang
In December 2015, reports emerged that Chinese businessman and investor Guo Guangchang had gone missing. Several social media accounts reported that the founder and chairman of investment conglomerate Fosun International was hustled away by the police at Shanghai’s airport. His disappearance has prompted the companies he oversaw to request a suspension of trade in their respective Hong Kong and Shanghai-listed shares.
Guo subsequently reappeared later and claimed that he had been assisting authorities in an unnamed investigation. No further explanation was offered, though his disappearance came amidst a corruption crackdown started by Xi Jinping after he rose to power in 2012.
Chinese actor Fan Bingbing
The internationally-acclaimed Chinese actress, Fan Bingbing, was another notable celebrity who mysteriously disappeared from the public eye for four months in 2018. The actress, who had appeared in over a dozen Chinese films, as well as in ‘X-Men’ franchise had gone missing from July 2018 to October 2018. She was reportedly detained by provincial authorities in connection with a tax evasion case.
The Chinese authorities had found out that she and her company had evaded 248 million yuan in taxes. After Fan reappeared from her four months of disappearance, she was obsequious to the Chinese government and even thanked them for “vanishing” her.
“It may be trough I encountered in my life or in my work, but this trough is actually a good thing,” she told in an interview to the New York Times. “It has made me calm down and think seriously about what I want to do in my future life,” she said.
Former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei
Meng Hongwei, who was the first Chinese head of Interpol, vanished on a trip back to the country from France in September 2018. He was scheduled to serve as the head of Interpol until 2020, but the organisation said he tendered his resignation days after he had gone missing from China.
The CCP later confirmed that Hongwei was detained as a part of Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption and was suspected of taking bribes. The party said Meng had misused his position for personal gain, abused state funds to provide his family an “extravagant lifestyle” and ignored Communist Party principles. He was expelled from the party and stripped of all government positions.
According to the Chinese reports, Meng had allegedly admitted of taking more than $2 million in bribes. He was ordered by the Tianjin No 1 Intermediate People’s Court to pay a fine of two million yuan. The court statement also ordered that he would not appeal against the verdict. In January 2020, Meng was sentenced 13 and a half years in jail for accepting bribes.
Ex-real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang
More recently, Ren Zhiqiang, a former real estate tycoon and a staunch critic of China’s President Xi Jinping, had gone missing in March 2019 shortly after penning an essay critical of the Chinese Premier.
Though he did not name Xi Jinping in his article, it was widely believed that the ‘clown’ he referred to in his article slamming the Chinese Communist Party for bungling up the response to coronavirus outbreak was meant for Xi Jinping.
The essay was published shortly after Xi Jinping’s televised speech. Ren reportedly wrote, “I too am curiously and conscientiously studying [the] speech… what I saw …[was] not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes’, but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.”
Such maverick and critical views earned him the ire of the Chinese Communist Party which had displayed time and again its willingness to clampdown dissent, even among the country’s elites. Ren disappeared days after he wrote the scathing article. Months later, a court in Beijing sentenced Mr Ren to 18 years in prison on Tuesday. The court found Ren guilty of graft, taking bribes, misusing public funds and abusing his power during and after his time as an executive at a property development company.