By Rahul Tiwari
Chinese state media has recently published a front-page article praising the country’s entrepreneurial leaders, at a time when the global community was searching for that nation’s billionaire Jack Ma.
The internationally recognised and famous Chinese billionaire this time made headlines not because of his business ventures but due to his disappearance for months.
Jack Ma, the flamboyant business magnate, never misses an opportunity to put up a show for his audience. His recent disappearance since Oct. 2020 was a mystery, except for the tell-tale sign of his recent criticism of the Communist China’s banking system and officials, followed by the suspension of Jack Ma’s Ant Group’s $37 billion Initial Public Offering (IPO) around Nov. 2020.
From School Teacher To Tech-Giant
The 56-year-old English teacher turned-business tycoon comes from a humble background and entered the business world almost 21 years ago by founding Alibaba, a B2B marketplace site.
But this curious case of coincidence did not go well with the Chinese Communist Party when honest reviews about the nation’s banking system were added to the mix. Jack Ma before his disappearance had also criticised the CCP’s economic policies of regulating the market very closely.
In his words, this “pawnshop mentality” of China must change. This hampers new startups to emerge as tech giants in the country. This single incidence of criticism of the policies was enough to get him into the cross-hairs of the banking system regulators and the CCP itself.
Just before his disappearance, the world was yet to witness the most valued IPO of Jack Ma’s fine-tech company Ant Group. A narrative began in Chinese Communist Party that Alibaba is a monopoly and has unfair advantages. Anti-trust investigations were launched into Alibaba aiming to adversely affect Jack Ma’s tech empire.
During the Wuhan virus pandemic, when business investors and entrepreneurs were looking for a ray of hope, Ant group’s IPO, which was expected to be around $34 billion, was halted at the behest of Communist China’s President Xi Jinping. This move was speculated to be a message for other enterprises to toe the line or face repercussions, conveying that even the then richest man in the nation is not immune after criticising the party policies.
The speculations of his disappearance became serious when Jack Ma was not present in grand finale of his own show “Africa’s Business Heroes” which was a shock to the international community, as he is a personality, who never misses an opportunity to be in the spotlight, whether it is meeting the world leaders or dancing like Michael Jackson in his company’s annual anniversary event.
“Scheduling issue” was the reason given for this disappearance from such a significant event.
Similar Past Disappearances
The world has witnessed many such disappearances of Chinese eminent personalities even before the much-speculated disappearance of Jack Ma. After assuming power, Xi Jinping introduced laws which made extrajudicial detention legal.
As per Maya Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch China, no one in China is immune to forcible disappearance, ranging from a businessman to a movie star. Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actress who featured in Hollywood hits like X-Men and Iron Man, was also detained and was forced to disappear under the pretext of tax evasion investigation.
According to the experts, Jack Ma’s disappearance was just another example of a crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party. Business tycoons, movie stars, and even an Interpol President have disappeared. But after international pressure, Beijing said that Meng Hongwei was being investigated for bribery and other crimes.
These disappearances and illegal detentions convey a message, as Rana Mitter said, “I think there’s one overall message that the party is really sending, and that is that tech entrepreneurs may be the most glamorous, the most publicly favorable face that China shows to the world. But there is no one individual, no company is bigger than the Chinese Communist Party”.
Once CCP-Promoted Face Of “New China” Under Xi Jinping
Jack Ma’s success on such a scale made him the face of China — a liberal and an innovation face, which was also promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. China’s world mission of economically engaging itself with the developing nations and increasing its clout on the world stage with a propaganda like “Community of Common Destiny” included employing Jack Ma’s Alibaba and many other such tech companies as to showcase its intentions of helping the developing countries to progress. This cunning policy of Chinese Communist Party and its related documentaries were a matter of discussion not only among economist and international relations experts, also among the national security experts of the US and its allies.
Resurfacing In A Video
Two months after his disappearance, the Alibaba founder appeared in a video in which he was seen addressing rural teachers through video conferencing. Related to his disappearance, Chinese state media published an article that said, “Jack Ma is embracing supervision,” which was later removed. But it was enough to raise the suspicions about his forcible disappearance.
Furthermore, the time and date of the video was not verified other than from CCP mouthpiece Global Times and a spokesperson from the Jack Ma Foundation, a philanthropic initiative.
Reappearance: Goodwill Gesture Or Crackdown?
The two-month forced disappearance, along with the recent video, resulted in mixed opinions about the whole episode and the motives behind it. One of the speculations is that the CCP wants to pursue a path, which is acceptable to all and to not appear harsh on its critics and the international community.
Many letters were also written to the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner by human rights bodies about Jack Ma’s disappearance. This must have pressurised China to release his video for the international community. Though Jack Ma was made to appear before the world, that did not mean he is out of the woods, if we consider the track record of Chinese Communist Party.
For Jack Ma’s Business: What Does This Mean?
The future of Alibaba and Ant group in relation to Jack Ma’s relationship with the Chinese State is still not clear. Jack Ma’s criticism of CCP’s finance officials led to the cancellation of Ant Group’s IPO and an anti-trust investigation into Alibaba. According to business analysts, this may heavily undermine the growth of both Alibaba and the Ant Group in coming years and could make prospective investors cautious, resulting in negative growth of Jack Ma’s tech empire.
After the Wuhan Virus pandemic, the CCP has already lost its credibility before the world community. Cases of Human Rights violations in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Hong Kong, and in Tibet are coming to the light.
The CCP has always tried to suppress the oppressed voices but due to the smart phones and presence of social media, it is failing in doing so. Although, Jack Ma was made to reappear under international pressure, it is quite late for the CCP to hide its true self.
Fortunately for Jack Ma, he had been forced to disappear only for a couple of months. Many other eminent personalities have either faced such illegal detentions never to return. It is high time the world community and the UN took strong steps against the CCP.
(The writer, an M. Phil. from Centre for Development Practice, is a Research Fellow with Law and Society Alliance)
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