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Jack Ma: Everything you need to know about the ‘missing’ Chinese billionaire

Ma came from a poor family and struggled at school but is now the 25th richest man in the world

Mayank Aggarwal
Monday 04 January 2021 13:32 GMT
Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma
Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma (Getty Images)
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Once the poster boy for a new generation of multi-billionaire Chinese business and tech leaders, Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s fortunes have taken a serious dip in the last three months.

Since a controversial speech in China in October 2020, where he lamented the country’s financial regulatory system and called for it to be reformed, the billionaire has been facing a series of actions from the Chinese authorities.

He has faced a number of business setbacks since, including a block on his plans for a stellar listing on the stock market, actions which have in turn left the market wary of his firms. 

And he has now not been seen in public for more than two months - highlighted by his mysterious withdrawal from a scheduled appearance on his own reality TV show.

Who is Jack Ma?

Born in Hangzhou in eastern China, the 56-year-old came from a poor family and was once an English teacher.  

Read more: Chinese billionaire Jack Ma missing weeks after criticising state financial system 

He bought his first computer aged 33, and in the last two decades rose to become a shining star of China’s booming economy through the success of his e-commerce giant Alibaba.  

Ma stepped down as chairman of Alibaba in 2019, but has remained in the public eye through media appearances and philanthropic work. During the Covid-19 pandemic he has donated masks and ventilators to the US – an effort that drew praise from several US politicians – and he is the face of a talent show to support young entrepreneurs.  

Where is Jack Ma?

Ma’s removal from the good books of the Chinese authorities appears to have been even quicker than his rise to fame and fortune. The billionaire, who is known to speak freely, at a summit in October 2020 came down heavily on China’s financial regulators.  

He called for reforms in the financial system, speaking to an audience that included many officials of the regulatory organisations he was criticising. 

The response was swift. In November, a planned IPO of Ma’s Ant Group was suspended by the Chinese authorities and later, in December, the buyback plan of shares worth billions of pounds also failed to excite the investors. The authorities also opened an investigation against his firms. 

After years as the outgoing face of his companies – Ma once danced in front of tens of thousands of his company’s employees dressed in an outfit inspired by Michael Jackson – he is now conspicuously absent from the stage, without a public appearance in weeks or even a tweet in three months.

Jack Ma net worth

Jack Ma has various business interests. Apart from being the founder of Alibaba, he also has a stake in the online payment service Ant Group.

It’s a dramatic change for a man who once taught English for $15 (£11) a month. He says he was rejected for 30 other jobs – including one serving at KFC – before he founded his own company.

At one point Ma became Asia’s richest person – though he was later supplanted by another Chinese businessman.

According to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, his net worth is about $50.6bn (£37bn), making him the 25th richest person in the world.

Jack Ma and Alibaba

Ma has said he drew the inspiration to start Alibaba from a trip to the US in 1995.  Subsequently, in 1999, Ma along with 18 people including many of his friends founded Alibaba Group from an apartment in Hangzhou, where they pooled in $60,000 (£44,000) for the venture.

The group struggled early on and by 2002 they only had enough cash coming in to support 18 months of operation. But then came a timely intervention to connect two big markets – the US and China – ensuring that American buyers could get easier access to Chinese manufacturers, and slowly steadying the business.  

Over the years, the group became increasingly profitable and Ma and Alibaba became a force to reckon with. Ma started featuring on the covers of international business magazines – something uncommon for Chinese businessmen at that time.

As a result, the reach of the Alibaba group, which was once rejected by funders, is now spread over 190 countries. It has become a leading platform for wholesale trade connecting millions of buyers and suppliers. It now has an estimated market cap of about $648.3bn (£474bn).  

With an estimated 100,000 employees, Alibaba now has interests in e-commerce, cloud computing, cashless payment and even movies.

Ma stepped down from his role as chairman in 2019 and reports suggested he would focus his time and efforts on his philanthropic work. 

But as with many firms, the founder’s shadow looms large over Alibaba’s fortunes – something that the October 2020 controversy has shown. He remains an influential member of the Alibaba Partnership, for instance – a group of 36 members who can influence the nomination of the company's board of directors.

The company state’s that its vision is to be in operation for at least 102 years – but if the current trajectory of the crackdown on Ma continues, the dream may end much more abruptly than that.

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