For years, nobody flew higher in China than Jack Ma, the pixie-faced founder of the $500 billion powerhouse e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, the Amazon of Asia.
Now he’s vanished and no one knows where he is.
Ma, a member of the Communist Party who famously started out as an English teacher, symbolized the high-tech “China Dream” until he ran afoul of the political leaders who once lionized him. He hasn’t been seen in public for two months.
“China used Jack Ma and Alibaba as well as some of the other big fintech companies to show the world what great leaders they were,” Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told The Post.
“But these private sector companies were operating without government controls and Jack got a little too far out ahead of his skis. You only have to step out of line once and they’ll get you. He’s probably been smacked pretty hard.”
Insiders told The Post it’s highly unlikely that Ma, 56, has been permanently disappeared to one of China’s feared “black sites” reserved for the country’s dissidents. Nor is he in Singapore, per some rumors.
Instead he’s probably cooling his heels either at home or in a “very cushy location” where one expert said he may be reviewing “Marxist lessons” with party officials, a process called “embracing supervision.”
While building his company into a behemoth almost bigger than China itself, the free-spirited Ma, who’s married with three children, traveled the world. He hobnobbed with stars like Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig, Kevin Spacey and Nicole Kidman, lunched with President Obama and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron and swanned around Davos — all while speaking the fluent English he learned as a kid.
He even dressed up like Elton John or Michael Jackson and performed their songs onstage while cracking jokes before thousands of adoring Alibaba employees at company functions.
He acted more like an American billionaire than even the dour, low-key Jeff Bezos — and that was his mistake, say China analysts. In keeping with his outspoken ways, Ma mouthed off at a conference in Shanghai in October about how backward the country’s state-owned banks and regulators were — just days before Ma’s financial tech firm ANT Group was readying what would have been the world’s biggest IPO.
“Today’s financial system is the legacy of the Industrial Age,” Ma declared in the now infamous speech. “We must set up a new one for the next generation and young people. We must reform the current system.”
Among other things, Ma blasted the country’s bankers for having a “pawnshop mentality.”
Ma’s wings were abruptly clipped. He vanished from the public eye, ANT’s IPO was cancelled reportedly at the behest of Chinese president Xi Jinping — and China has launched an antitrust probe into Ma’s enormous company.
“This is Icarus, a classic case of hubris,” Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” told The Post. “In Jack Ma’s mind he was a rock star, maybe not more powerful than Xi Jianping but bigger than the Central Bank. So the Party decided to take him down. They ran over Jack Ma and hope it sends a message.”
It’s a hard fall for the man born Ma Yun to parents who were traditional musicians in Hangzhou, in the southeastern part of China, about two hours from Shanghai. Ma was a scrappy boy in a poor family who taught himself English at a young age by befriending Western tourists, as described in “Alibaba: The House that Jack Built,” by former Morgan Stanley employee Duncan Clark, who met Ma in 1999 in the small apartment where he founded Alibaba.
Ma met Ken Morley, a tourist from Australia, and his family when he was 14 and it led to a lifelong friendship. The Morleys took Ma to Australia in 1985 for a visit and Ma said the trip “changed his life. I learned to think for myself.”
Ma’s new worldliness and ambition didn’t help him in school, however. He failed China’s notoriously difficult college entrance exams twice. He finally made it on his third try and went to Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, from which he graduated in 1988 with a degree in English.
Ma met his future wife, Cathy, at college, and they married in 1988. They live with their three children in their hometown of Hangzhou.
He encountered more obstacles after college, reportedly being turned down for more than 12 job openings, even one at KFC.
He was eventually hired as an English teacher at $12 an hour. He also started up a translation company, but it was on a visit to the US in 1995 that he discovered the Internet and began trying online startup companies when he returned to China.
After several misfires, he formed Alibaba out of his small apartment in Hangzhou in 1999 with 17 friends. The initial concept — online shopping for small businesses — attracted $25 million from investors in its first year.
Alibaba today is by most estimates the world’s largest online commerce company. Besides shopping, it also includes banking, technology and cloud computing.
Ma’s played up how different he is than most egghead Internet billionaires who are math, science or coding geniuses. He prefers the kind of wild publicity stunts associated with Richard Branson, which is why, insiders say, he began to take to the Alibaba stage at corporate celebrations. He put on a blond wig and headdress to sing along to “The Lion King” in 2009. In 2017, he preened atop a motorcycle in a mask and a Michael Jackson outfit while dancing to “Billie Jean” and then joined a “formation-style” performance with backup dancers.
Today, Ma isn’t an executive or board member at either Alibaba or ANT but he’s the largest Alibaba shareholder with shares worth at least $25 billion.
Alibaba lost more than $110 billion in market value Dec. 24 when China officially launched the probe. China’s government also told state media to censor reporting on the investigation into Alibaba back in December, the Financial Times reported Thursday.
It’s not unusual for China to yank some of their most prized tycoons and celebrities from public view for some infraction, and to show them who’s boss. The country’s biggest movie star, Fan Bingbing, disappeared in 2018 for alleged tax evasion and was out of sight for months. She eventually wrote a fawning apology to the Communist Party on her social media pages and reportedly paid a tax bill of at least $70 million.
No one knows where Bingbing disappeared to but one source told Vulture that she had been kept under “residential surveillance at a designated location” described as a holiday resort in the coastal province of Jiangsu.
In Ma’s case, he was a no-show as a judge in the finale of a game show for entrepreneurs called “Africa’s Business Heroes” which is sponsored by his philanthropic organization in Africa.
Alibaba spokesmen said there was a “scheduling conflict” that kept Ma off his show. While some reports out of China say Ma’s just keeping a low profile while Chinese regulators parse Alibaba’s vast books and order a restructuring of ANT, the situation appears serious, if not sinister.
Some say the West opened young Ma’s eyes up too much and now he’s gotten what he deserved.
“Jack Ma is a gangster,” Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade and manufacturing policy and the author of the 2011 book “Death By China: Confronting the Dragon,” told The Post. “He runs a company called Alibaba. Finish the thought: Forty thieves. He set up an enterprise with stolen goods, using our eBay business model. He stole all the e-commerce technology from us.”
But for all his shrewdness, Ma failed to see what should have been obvious to him and everyone around him, Navarro said. “Xi’s been consolidating power for the last four to five years.”
“He’s doing the same thing to Chinese oligarchs as Putin did to Russian oligarchs. They get money and fall in love with the West and forget where they come from. Then they get slapped down. There’s a Chinese expression called ‘kill the chicken, scare the monkey’ which means to make an example of someone. That’s what they’re doing to him. They’ll probably let him come back but his marching orders will be to just shut up and make money.”
“He will re-surface and will have to publicly repent but not on his terms,” Singleton said. “But I bet Jack Ma will comply because he doesn’t want to see this massive thing he built blew up. He’s a strategic thinker and he’s still someone to be reckoned with.”