Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video call, three months after his last public appearance in October, sending the e-commerce firm’s shares up more than 8% in Hong Kong.
A recording of the call was first posted on a news portal backed by the government of Zhejiang, the eastern province where Alibaba is headquartered, and the video was verified by an Alibaba spokesperson.
Speculations swirled around Ma’s whereabouts after media reported in December that he skipped the taping of a TV program he created. Ma, known for his love for the limelight, has seen his e-commerce empire Alibaba and fintech giant Ant Group increasingly in the crosshairs of the Chinese authorities in recent months.
Ma last appeared publicly at a conference where he castigated China’s financial regulatory system in front of a room of high-ranked officials. His controversial remark, according to reports, prompted the Chinese regulator to abruptly halt Ant’s initial public offering, which would have been the biggest public share sale of all time.
Ant has since been working on corporate restructuring and regulatory compliance under the directions of the government. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce platform, also came under scrutiny as market regulators opened an investigation into its alleged monopolistic practices.
Some argue that the recent clampdown on Jack Ma’s internet empire signals Beijing’s growing unease with the country’s super-rich and private-sector power brokers.
“Today, Alibaba and its archrival, Tencent, control more personal data and are more intimately involved in everyday life in China than Google, Facebook and other American tech titans are in the United States. And just like their American counterparts, the Chinese giants sometimes bully smaller competitors and kill innovation,” wrote Li Yuan for the New York Times.
“You don’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to see reasons to rein them in.”
In the 50-second clip, Ma is seen talking directly into the camera against what appears to be decorative paintings depicting a water town typical of Zhejiang. An art history book is shown amid a stack of books, alongside a vase of fresh flowers and a ceramic figurine of a stout, reclining man who looks relaxed and content.
Ma addressed the 100 teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, which was set up by the Jack Ma Foundation to identify outstanding rural teachers every year. It’s unclear where Ma was speaking from, but the video briefly shows him visiting a rural boarding school in Zhejiang on January 10. The award ceremony was moved online this year due to the pandemic, Ma told the award recipients.
When Ma announced his retirement plan, he pledged to return to his teaching roots and devote more time to education philanthropy, though the founder still holds considerable sway over Alibaba by keeping a seat in the powerful Alibaba Partnership. The legendary billionaire began his career as an English teacher in Hangzhou, and on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, he nicknames himself the “ambassador for rural teachers.”