China State Media Gave Hints of Regime's Displeasure With Jack Ma

A Communist Party newspaper article is trending in China after it appeared to predict and capture the Chinese government's displeasure with billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma, who has not been seen in public for two months.

The People's Daily opinion piece—written in the days after Ma stepped down as chairman of Alibaba Group on September 10, 2019—dismissed the 56-year-old's idol status, which turned him into something of a rock star among the country's budding entrepreneurs.

Resurfacing on China's Twitter-like social media service Weibo, the article is titled "There is no so-called Jack Ma era, only an era in which there is Jack Ma."

"There is no doubt that Alibaba is a successful enterprise, nor is there any doubt about Jack Ma's effect on Alibaba, but to credit an enterprise's success solely with its leader is totally unrealistic," the text read. "Even a successful entrepreneur and a successful enterprise must rely on the backdrop that is the greatness of their time."

The People's Daily article suggests Ma and Alibaba—one of China's richest men and its largest e-commerce business respectively—were fortuitous to exist in an economic environment created by the Chinese government, where their growth was made possible.

"A seedling can only grow into a tall tree if it has the right soil and climate conditions," it continued.

The article concludes: "There is no so-called Jack Ma era, only an era in which there is Jack Ma. Only individuals who seize the opportunity of their time can fulfill their potential. Be it Jack Ma, Pony Ma, Elon Musk or us ordinary people—there is no exception.

"Blind admiration will not bring bring success. Understanding the relationship between one's success and one's time ... is essential to achieving success."

Chinese internet commenters and local news sites have described recent developments and the government's "mood" towards Ma as having been "predicted" by the tone of the text in the country's largest newspaper.

Ma has not been seen since the Bund Summit in Shanghai in late-October, when he made remarks regarded as highly controversial among China's political class.

China's most high-profile businessman was obliquely critical of the country's tightly controlled financial system and called for it to be overhauled for the good of the "next generation" of Chinese youth.

Ma, who said financial regulators were "stifling innovation" in China, has not posted on Twitter and Weibo since the middle of the same month.

Ma failed to appear on the November finale of Africa's Business Heroes, a game show he created for entrepreneurs. His slot was replaced by another Alibaba executive due to a "scheduling conflict," Reuters and others reported on Monday.

On Sunday, Ma was a notable absentee at the Zhejiang Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. He is a regular attendee of the annual forum, and his failure to make an appearance raised further questions regarding his whereabouts among Weibo users.

Ma's comments are believed to have put him in direct conflict with the Chinese government. It resulted in the suspension of the highly anticipated initial public offering of Alibaba's fintech arm Ant Group just 24 hours before its launch on November 3. Last month, Chinese regulators then launched an anti-monopoly probe into Alibaba.

China's state media outlets reported that both Ant Group and Alibaba had "embraced" structural changes demanded by regulatory authorities.

The billionaire, who once held the affectionate nickname "Father Ma," has been vilified since his October remarks in Shanghai. Chinese media reports have chosen descriptors including "vampire" and "thug."

Ma, however, who sits at number 20 on the Forbes Real Time Billionaires list, has yet to be mentioned in official party publications since the end of last year, when they confirmed he had been summoned as part of Ant's halted IPO—reported at the time to be worth $37 billion.

Alibaba Co-founder Jack Ma Addresses Audience
File photo: Alibaba Group co-founder Jack Ma. Wang He/Getty Images