What Jack Ma’s Disappearance tells us about China?

It isn’t easy to believe that one of the wealthiest business tycoons in the world vanishes for a few months with absolutely no trace of his whereabouts. Welcome to China! While the rest of the world believes politicians are in the pockets of ambitious billionaires, in the Red Dragon, shadowy government agencies control everything and everyone. No matter the money and influence you have, there is no way you’re above the Government.

In October of 2020, the then richest man of China and the most famous Chinese person, Jack Ma, gave a controversial speech criticizing state-owned banks’ risk-averse nature and deeming the financial system ‘Non-Existent’. (Here is a transcript of that speech). Little did he know that the next couple of months were going to be a bumpy ride for him. Ant Financial’s IPO was scheduled on the 5th of November, and speculations were that it would be the biggest ever. On 4th November, the Chinese Government tweaked its regulations, prevented Ant Financial from getting listed, and formulated a plan for breaking up the company. Next, they filed a case against Alibaba for engaging in Anticompetitive practices. Co-incidence? I think not. In the following months, the state media defamed Ma, calling him a vampire who has been sucking money from the poor.

Just like we’ve got India’s got talent, Jack Ma has his show, called Africa’s got heroes. He was supposed to be a judge in the finals, but he didn’t go (or rather wasn’t allowed to go?) That is when speculations of his disappearance started emerging.

These speculations weren’t baseless. In 2019, Ren Zhiqiang, another Chinese billionaire who had been a staunch critic of President Xi Jinping, called the president a ‘Clown who stripped naked’ during the Chinese handling of the COVID pandemic. A few days later, he disappeared, only to be later found in jail on corruption charges.

Consider the story of former Interpol chief, Meng Hongwei. Hongwei was the first-ever Chinese head of Interpol. In the middle of his tenure in 2018, he went missing for a few days, then submitted his resignation from Interpol and was later sentenced to 13 years in prison on corruption charges. Interestingly all of the people accused accepted the decision and did not try to appeal.

Ma stepped down as the chairman of Alibaba, allegedly under the Government’s pressure, so it was natural for people to think that something would happen with uncle Jack. These speculations drove down investor confidence. The impact was such that from November till January, Alibaba shares slumped 30%! That is until Mr. Ma reappeared in January in a video. He spoke nothing of his disappearance or his whereabouts but addressed a group of rural teachers as a part of his philanthropic ventures.
Nonetheless, the evidence of his safety added $45 Billion to Alibaba in one day. Reports now suggest that Ma is laying low for a while. So why hasn’t he met the same fate as others? Maybe because he has been so crucial to the Chinese economy all these years, and some reports suggest that he is a member of the Communist Party of China, and perhaps he was shown leniency. All these moves by the Chinese Government reinstate that absolutely no one can speak against the Chinese Government. Like many others, Ma’s example serves as a warning to all those who try to go against the party. In Uncle Jack’s own words: “Among the richest men in China, very few have good endings.”

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