Who is Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire feared 'missing'?

Lucy Harley-McKeown
·4 min read

Watch: Chinese billionaire Jack Ma suspected missing

Billionaire Jack Ma has not made a public appearance in two months, leading to speculation in the press that the one of China’s most high-profile business men could be “missing”.

On Friday, the Financial Times reported that Ma had failed to show up to the final episode of his own talent show, Africa’s Business Heroes. He was replaced as a judge in the final episode of the show, which gives budding African entrepreneurs the chance to compete for a slice of $1.5m (£1.1m). His picture was also removed from the website.

A spokesperson for Alibaba (BABA), Ma’s company, told Reuters the change was due to a scheduling conflict, but did not provide further details.

The failure to appear — and the lack of public appearances over the last two months — has sparked speculation about Ma’s whereabouts given recent events.

In November, Chinese regulators sensationally blocked plans for the stock market listing of Ant Group, one of Ma’s businesses, in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Chinese leader Xi Jinping reportedly personally authorized the move, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was reportedly motivated by Ma’s criticism of China’s regime.

Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma attends the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 5, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma attends the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 5, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

While his whereabouts are unknown, here’s what we do know about Jack Ma:

Amazon of China

Chinese-born Ma came from a poor family in Hangzhou, eastern China, and began his working life as an English teacher.

He was an early adopter of the internet in China and started his first tech company in the mid-90s.

In 1999, Ma co-founded Alibaba Group, an online shopping site. The business attracted early backing from Goldman Sachs and Japan’s SoftBank. It grew into a multinational behemoth specialising in e-commerce, retail, and technology. Comparisons have often been drawn with Amazon.

Alibaba went public in New York in 2014. It was the biggest IPO in history at the time, raising $231bn.

$50bn net worth

Alibaba’s phenomenal growth has helped make Ma one of the world’s richest men. Bloomberg’s Billionaire’s index puts his net worth at around $50.6bn, making him the 25th richest person in the world. Forbes ranked him the second wealthiest person in China.

Ma is also the founder Taobao Marketplace, an online shopping website, and Alipay, one of China’s most popular payments platform. Alipay is part of Ant Group, a financial services giant in China that grew out of Alibaba.

Ma stepped down as chairman of Alibaba in 2019, but has remained in the public eye through media appearances.

In October, Ma delivered a controversial speech in Shanghai in which he criticised China’s regulatory system for stifling innovation. He also likened global banking rules to an “old people’s club.”

“Today’s financial system is the legacy of the Industrial Age,” Ma said in the speech. “We must set up a new one for the next generation and young people. We must reform the current system.”

Little over a week later, Ant’s record-setting $37bn IPO was suspended. The Shanghai Stock Exchange said Ant had reported “significant issues, such as the changes in financial technology regulatory environment.” The float had already received the green light from China’s securities watchdog.

‘Rock star’ CEO

Outside of business, Ma is known for his love of music and philanthropy. He regularly performed at Alibaba’s annual events while chief executive, including a memorable dance to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Ma hired a stadium his leaving party at Alibaba, performing in a leather jacket and wig.

Ma is involved in charity work through his Jack Ma Foundation, which is focused on education, entrepreneurship and the environment. The Foundation has distributed or pledged more than $300m, Forbes reported.

In 2019, Ma was named by Forbes as one of Asia’s 2019 Heroes of Philanthropy for work supporting under privileged communities in China, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.

He has donated millions of face masks to Europe, the US and the World Health Organisation in a bid to help control the coronavirus pandemic.

Watch: Jack Ma's disappearing act fuels speculation