There was a prediction made in 2019 by a Chinese billionaire about Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Guo Wengui fled China as a fugitive in 2014 and in August 2019 predicted that Jack Ma would either be jailed or end up dead. The reason for such a prediction was that Wengui believed the Chinese government wanted to “take back” Ma’s ANT Group.
At the time, the prediction might have appeared too paranoid but in light of recent events, it does not sound too far-fetched. Jack Ma has reportedly disappeared from the African talent show that he created and was replaced by an Alibaba Executive. A spokesperson claimed “Due to a schedule conflict Mr Ma could no longer be part of the finale judge panel of Africa’s Business Heroes earlier this year (2020)”.
But the Chinese billionaire has not made an appearance in public in two months. And it is suspected that his disappearance is connected with his criticism of the financial regulators in the country. He described the regulators as a ‘pawnshop’ and an ‘old people’s club’. “Today’s financial system is the legacy of the Industrial Age. We must set up a new one for the next generation and young people. We must reform the current system,” Jack Ma said in a speech on October 24.
Following the comments, an antitrust investigation was initiated against the Alibaba Group Holding. Ma’s financial tech company Ant Group was also ordered to scale back its operations. In November, the blockbuster initial public offering of his Ant Group worth $37 billion was suspended under direct orders from Xi Jinping.
Jack Ma was also ordered to not leave the country. The antitrust investigation against his company wiped out $10 billion from his wealth. The ANT Group was ordered to redress the company’s insurance, lending, and wealth management services. The ANT Group, for its part, said that they will comply with the directives. “The rectification is an opportunity for Ant Group to strengthen the foundation for our business to grow with full compliance, and to continue focusing on innovating for social good and serving small businesses,” it said in a statement.
Observers say that such developments point towards the fact that China’s tech giants are under the radar of the Communist regime. “There is a wave of similar signals showing that China’s tech giants are staying on the radar of authorities. The anti-monopoly drafted guidance and antitrust review are just two of those signals,” said Bruce Pang, head of macro and strategy research at China Renaissance Securities Hong Kong.
Since the government investigations into the company, there has been a perceptible shift in public sentiment regarding Jack Ma. While he was earlier glorified and lionized, now he is being labelled a “villain”, an “evil capitalist” and a “bloodsucking ghost”. The businessmen has attracted comments against himself along the lines of “Workers of the world, unite!”
Meanwhile, capturing the anti-rich sentiment prevailing in the country, comments such as “An outstanding people’s billionaire like Jack Ma will definitely be hanged on top of the lamppost” are being ‘liked’ and retweeted hundreds and thousands of times on Chinese social media platforms. The Chinese government, on the other hand, is fueling such sentiments in part through its actions and taking advantage of it at the same to curtail the power of such tech giants.
It is no great surprise that China is looking to cut down the power the emerging tech giants could wield. There have been clamour in the United States of America as well to check the unparalleled power of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter among other giants. There is bipartisan consensus in the USA as well that such tech giants operate as monopolies and there was a recent Congressional hearing on the matter.
Under such circumstances, it is not a surprise that similar sentiments exist in China as well where the government has much greater powers to solve such crisis. But pro-market forces in China fear, and with good reason, that the country could be moving back to a time when the CCP was a lot less tolerant towards capitalists.
Alibaba is touted to be the world’s largest e-commerce company with billions of dollars in turnover. Jack Ma was once Asia’s richest man before his wealth dwindled following action by the Chinese government and he has stumbled in the list of the world’s richest man.
China, under President Xi Jinping, has been ruthless against its critics and has arrested numerous dissidents of the regime. In March a property tycoon had disappeared after he called President Xi Jinping a ‘clown’ for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Ren Zhiqiang a billionaire financier, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he ‘voluntarily and truthfully confessed’ to various crimes of corruption. Similarly, Xian Jianhua, a billionaire financier, was snatched from a Hong Kong hotel in 2017 and taken to the mainland.