Last Fall Jack Ma was rich, and famous, and we knew all about him, followed his every move. He was in fact the richest man in China, and the most famous living Chinese person (according to polls). He was poised to crown his career with a triumphant public offering for his company, The Ant Group, the largest Fintech company in the world. The markets loved him. His high-tech business empire – which included Alibaba, the “Amazon of China” – was valued at well over $1 Trillion. He was an entrepreneur, an innovator, and charismatic spokesman for Success in the New China. But in Ma’s charisma there was a dimension beyond. His showmanship skills were extraordinary. Alibaba’s stadium-sized company celebrations were choreographed into extravaganzas the equal of any Super Bowl halftime show, and Ma himself was always the star…
Then he disappeared.
Ma last took the public stage on October 24 of last year, in Shanghai. He gave a speech – The Speech, as it will be known – in which he was bluntly critical of the Chinese financial industry establishment. Days later, the authorities responded. They killed the Ant IPO, and summoned Ma to Beijing for “regulatory interviews.” And the curtain came down.
Jack Ma hasn’t been seen since – if by “seen” we mean being actually observed, and verifiably photographed, in public, and at liberty. Instead, through a credulous press, we have been treated to a series of bizarre “sightings.”
There have been (as far as I can tell) just 6 “reports” of Jack Ma’s doings since October, all of them strange, suspiciously vague, and indirect
1. The “Hostage Video”
The first sighting occurred three months after he disappeared. As the story unfolded, it was “a cold Sunday in January.” Jack Ma is said to have driven “hours into the countryside” to an obscure location, accompanied by a government film crew, to make a “reappearance video,” which was later posted online by the government news agency. “He arrived unannounced at a small, out-of-the-way elementary school in rural Tonglu. The playgrounds were empty and only a handful of teachers were on campus. No one was expecting China’s most flamboyant entrepreneur… He was at the school to shoot a short, politically safe clip to let the world know he was still free. But the appearance was being carefully stage-managed and teachers vying for selfies with Ma were turned down.”
The video is just 43 seconds long. There is nothing in it to identify time or place. Ma is subdued, and speaks only in Chinese (although he is a fluent and charismatic communicator in English). He shows little emotion or affect, there is no hint of “flamboyance” (the word perhaps most often used to describe Jack in normal times). He says nothing about the Ant IPO, or anything else related to his trillion dollar empire. His ultra-brief message is addressed to a small (unseen) audience of rural public school teachers. It conveys nothing of significance. Or does it? Ma does say: “I have been studying and thinking, and have become more determined to devote myself to education and public welfare…” Is it far-fetched to hear a resonance of “re-education” here (and its associations with the correctional measures employed during the Cultural Revolution)? And does the fact that Jack’s “devotion” now embraces the “public welfare” imply that heretofore he may have shown insufficient solidarity with the People? It is a strange performance. He does not seem himself. It has been called a sort of “hostage video.” In any case, supporters of Jack seized on this clip, spare as it is, with great relief, as “proof of life” (in the words of his friend and biographer, Duncan Clark). Alibaba’s market-value rose by $40 Bn on the news. There was, however, an odd detail: “The one visible sign Ma left after his hour-long visit was a scribbled signature on a dormitory wall. “We can only say Teacher Ma does not have very good handwriting,” comments vice-principal Wu Bin. In fact, friends say Ma is quite a talented calligrapher, so the scribble may have been a sign that he was in a hurry.”
2. The Golf Outing?
Three weeks later, there was this headline (from a rather fatuous Bloomberg report): “Jack Ma Spotted Playing Golf, Easing China Detention Fears.”
“For months, speculation over Jack Ma’s whereabouts has run rampant. Maybe the embattled billionaire had fled to Singapore, some posited. Or he had been placed under house arrest. Or worse yet, he was locked up in a high-security jail. As it turns out, China’s most talked-about tycoon has been working on his golf game. The founder of The Ant Group and Alibaba teed off in recent weeks at the Sun Valley Golf Resort, a secluded 27-hole course on the Chinese island of Hainan…”
The Bloomberg reporter actually had no direct contact with Ma, did not see him herself, but relied on information obtained from “people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private information.” Nor would any of the relevant organizations confirm it. “Representatives for Alibaba, Ant and the Sun Valley Golf Resort declined to comment.” In short, there was zero corroboration. The article does assure us that “the course offers expansive greens and stunning views.”
3. The Online Chat
The same Bloomberg report cited an exchange of text-messages between Ma and the head of Softbank. “Masayoshi Son, a longtime friend of Ma’s who was among the earliest investors in Alibaba, said during SoftBank’s quarterly earnings presentation on Monday that he has remained in touch with Ma. While he didn’t talk about the Chinese billionaire’s whereabouts, Son said Ma likes to draw and has been sharing his sketches via chat.” “‘Jack Ma loves painting and has sent me lots of pictures,’ said Masayoshi Son.” In this case, we have a named source. But it is not clear whether Son actually spoke to Ma, or only connected by text messages. No date for this exchange was given, nor any other details. The account sheds no light on any of the questions of real interest about Mr. Ma’s situation. Evidently the painting is now part of the narrative. “‘He’s lying low right now,’ Joe Tsai, the company’s executive vice-chairman and Ma’s co-founder, was quoted as saying by CNBC. ‘He’s actually doing very, very well. He’s taken up painting as a hobby, it’s actually pretty good.’”
4. The Jet Logs
In March, the The Financial Times published an interesting piece of forensic journalism. They had obtained access to the records for Jack Ma’s private jet.
“The flight logs, compiled with data from Radarbox, a flight-tracking company, dispel rumors that he has fled China to Singapore or been put under house arrest. Instead, they suggest that Ma continues to have access to his Gulfstream jet, which has a range that could easily carry him as far as New York or London.”
Prior to his October speech, the logs show that he criss-crossed China hyperactively. There were plenty of sightings of Ma himself embarking and disembarking. But since his disappearance, the logs “suggest” that he has mainly shuttled to and from Beijing. “The records show intense activity around Ma’s controversial October speech in Shanghai, in which he criticized state-owned banks and regulators. The day after he made the comments, his jet flew to Beijing for a four-day stay. A few days later, at 9pm on November 1, Ma flew again to Beijing … Ma’s jet sat parked in Beijing for two weeks.” Of course, the movements of an aircraft do not actually confirm the movements of its owner. No one is said to have actually seen him during any of these trips. There are no photos. The FT could not obtain additional information:
“Alibaba referred questions to Ma’s charitable foundation, which did not respond to a request for comment. Ant Group did not respond to a request for comment.”
5. The Putin Video
In April, the news broke that Ma had taken part in a video call with Vladimir Putin (of all people)… at a meeting of the Russian Geographical Society.
This strange episode was reported by the New York Times and others. The video of the event shows Putin dominant in the center of a giant TV screen, Big Brother style, talking to a room full of scientist/bureaucrat/NGO-looking types. Putin’s image is surrounded on the screen by eight small “participant tiles” to provide a sense of a supporting cast, a “board” perhaps (although Putin is alone, physically, somewhere, and the others are all presumably at separate remote locations). One of the tiles is occupied by… Jack Ma. The video runs for 90 minutes. Various international experts expound in various languages upon various geographical topics. Putin amiably orchestrates the proceedings from his isolated command center, sitting at a huge circular desk which is reminiscent of the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek.
For 90 minutes, then, Ma sits stock still there in his personal video tile. He does not speak, does not smile, is not called upon, and no one refers to him. There is no indication of where he may be, or why he is there. He spends most of the time “resting his head on one hand, looking deeply bored” (as the Times put it).
6. The Alibaba Visit
Then in May, it was reported that Jack Ma had actually visited Alibaba headquarters for an employee social event. “On Monday, Ma was seen in an open-air campus shuttle bus with a number of Alibaba executives, according to a photograph taken by an employee at the event, viewed by Reuters. Wearing a blue T-shirt, white trousers and a pair of Chinese-style cloth shoes, Ma was smiling. ‘It’s so exciting to see Jack,’ said the employee, declining to be named. ‘It’s a pity there was no chance to take a photo with him.’” Reuters did not, or could not, publish the photo the article claims they “viewed.”
What Should We Make Of This?
Let’s summarize the hard information here. There isn’t much.
- the Chinese authorities published a brief video in which Ma is shown, uncharacteristically flat and subdued, and says nothing of substance; there is no audience shown in the video, and no indication of time or place
- someone told a Bloomberg reporter that Ma had played golf in Hainan, but was unwilling to be identified as a source; there was no direct sighting by the reporter and no photo
- Masayoshi Son had a text exchange with Ma (or someone using his phone).
- Jack has taken up painting, it seems
- Ma’s jet was flown a few times to and from Beijing.
- Ma is said to have visited Alibaba, and said to have been photographed once — but the photo is not available.
- Ma endured an online meeting of the Russian Geographical Society
A Parade of Irrelevancies
The gaps here are glaring:
- There is no named source for any of the information in these reports (except for Masayoshi Son’s and Joe Tsai’s attestation to Jack’s new interest in art).
- No organization associated with Ma will confirm any of the above events; all have declined to comment.
- There is no direct evidence that Ma was on his airplane, or under what conditions he may have been on the airplane, during the flights logged and reported by the Financial Times.
- There is no substantive information about anything the world would like to know, anything related to his businesses. Instead we get pedagogical advice; golf; Russian geography; artwork…
- There are no photographs of Ma anywhere in public in the last nine months.
The last point is striking. There are one billion smartphones in China today. Everyone knows what Jack Ma looks like. Given his notoriety, and the intense vested interest of the financial world in his status and well-being, if he is at liberty today, how could it be that there are no pictures of him in circulation?
The Incuriosity of the Press
I spoke recently with David Lesperance, an immigration lawyer and financial advisor who has 20 years of experience helping people like Jack Ma in various countries to create contingency plans – for use in case of adverse government actions in their home countries. David’s comment on the Ma situation (in which he has no personal involvement):
- “I am puzzled. I don’t know why the press is not more curious about these very curious little stray sightings and a short video clip and nobody speaking for attribution.”
Western news outlets have not given much attention to the story and they have been surprisingly uncritical regarding what they have reported. Bloomberg was content to cite an unnamed source for the supposed sighting of Ma at a golf outing, for example, with no corroboration whatsoever.
Lesperance asks questions Bloomberg might have asked:
- “What’s the chance that Jack suddenly decided to take up golf, and happened to play in a place where nobody had a cell phone? It doesn’t quite meet the Ockham’s razor test. He may very well have had a call with the head of Softbank, or exchanged artwork, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t all done pre-arranged and under duress. And it would have been so easy, in the [“hostage”] video, for example, to have a simple kind of proof of life, the current newspaper or some identifying object.”
Fearing the Worst
It is being “rectified” (as Beijing puts it): dismantled, reassembled, and parceled out to government-run competitors. There is value destruction on a huge scale. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been subtracted from the public market value of Alibaba alone.
What we don’t know is just what has happened to the man himself. None of the sightings described above shed any real light on his fate, beyond establishing the fact that he is probably still alive.
That had worried a lot of people. The $40 Bn relief rally after the “proof of life” video, or the headline announcing that the (unverified) golf outing constituted an “Easing of Detention Fears” reflected dark speculations about what might have befallen him.
Precedents & Hypotheticals
Those fears are not unfounded. In recent years, the “richest men in China” have been beset by a plague of disappearances, kidnappings, prosecutions, imprisonments, and in a few cases, execution. (I have detailed prominent examples in a previous column.) Some of this is related to so-called anti-corruption campaigns by the government, which may be justifiable to some degree. Yet recently, Beijing’s pressure has shifted towards a general “rectification” of the technology sector. Just in the last few months, following Jack’s disappearance, the founders of China’s tech giants ByteDance, Pinduoduo, and Meituan have stepped down – prematurely in the view of many (a topic for a future column). Stand back from all this, and what does it signify? Imagine a hypothetical parallel. We know that Amazon, for example, is under pressure from the US government for potential antitrust violations. Suppose that in the course of this process, Jeff Bezos were summoned to Washington, and suddenly disappeared — not to be seen in public for nine months, his whereabouts unknown. We can imagine that there would be a media uproar.