Ant Group and Alibaba CEO, Jack Ma has reappeared in the public sphere for the first time since the Chinese government began clamping down on his business empire about three months ago.
Ma made this reappearance on Wednesday via a live-streamed video, where he briefly addressed rural teachers at this year's edition of the annual event he hosts to recognize them. His reappearance has since sent Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s stock soaring but also done little to answer the many unanswered questions about his fate. Meanwhile, shares of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that was co-founded by Ma and which owns about a third of Ant, have since jumped by as much as 11% in Hong Kong, adding about $63 billion to its market value.
In the said video that has since circulated online, China’s most famous billionaire-entrepreneur can be seen touring a primary school in his hometown of Hangzhou, and told the teachers he’ll spend more time on philanthropy, whilst skipping any mention of his recent run-ins with Beijing.
While Ant confirmed the authenticity of the video, they declined to comment further.
Speculation about Ma’s whereabouts and his standing with President Xi Jinping’s government had reached a fevered pitch in recent weeks, after regulators ordered Ant to overhaul its business and began an antitrust investigation of Alibaba. Beijing’s crackdown followed an October speech by Ma in which he criticized Chinese regulators and state-owned lenders.
Ma’s comments on Wednesday however struck a much different tone, echoing themes espoused by the ruling Communist Party, such as reviving the countryside and narrowing income disparities by encouraging the return of younger talent to rural areas.
While Ma’s exact whereabouts remain unclear, his emergence in a public forum may help quell some of the more dire rumors about his fate in a country where media coverage is often tightly choreographed.
But Ma probably isn’t out of the woods, as Brock Silvers, the MD of Kaiyuan Capital, noted, saying “A path acceptable to all parties may have been identified, but Ant Group still looks likely to be dis-aggregated and regulatory restrictions will almost surely take a significant bite out of Ant’s former valuation.”
The clampdown on Ma’s empire is part of a broader campaign to rein in a generation of Chinese tech giants that Beijing views as wielding too much control over the world’s second-largest economy.
The same month Ant’s IPO was scuttled, the nation’s top antitrust watchdog published new guidelines warning tech giants against monopolistic practices from forced exclusive arrangements to collusion on data. Ant and Alibaba have borne the brunt of that assault since November.
As of early December, Ma was advised by the government to stay in the country, a trusted source said, with debates arising about his whereabouts because Beijing has in the past quietly detained billionaires that have run afoul of the law, without immediate trial.