STORY. How Jack Ma, China’s Richest Man, Vanished From Radar Screens

Friday, September 17, 2021, Adirondack Regional Airport in upstate New York. It is 9 o’clock in the morning, the temperature is still cool and the sky very overcast when a large private jet, a white Gulfstream G650 decorated with a thin navy blue stripe, lands gently on the only runway. Nothing unusual a priori. The place, located 1 hour 30 flight north of Manhattan, is renowned for hosting aircraft of all sizes of the many personalities who come to stay discreetly in their second home. Forests and lakes offer a very popular landscape in this mountain range which extends the Appalachian chain.

But the plane that slowly approaches the hangars and small wooden buildings of the terminal has a peculiarity: thanks to its registration, VP-CZM, we can reveal that it belongs to the billionaire Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba . Is he on board? The point of departure of the flight – Hong Kong where Jack Ma lives – and its point of arrival maintain doubt. In June 2015, he acquired for 23 million dollars an 11,500 hectare nature reserve located in the Adirondacks region near the small airport. Called Brandon Park, this property, which has eight buildings, once belonged to the Rockefeller family. Its forests are famous for sheltering white-tailed deer. An ideal refuge to protect yourself from prying eyes. Especially since you can easily enter and leave the airport without being noticed.

A few days later, his plane leaves (with him?) in the direction of Plattsburgh, another small and very discreet aerodrome, near New York, before returning to Hong Kong, much later, on December 9, 2021. No testimony, no photo does not confirm that the entrepreneur stayed across the Atlantic on this occasion. But if so, it would be a secret trip, the entrepreneur’s first overseas since Chinese authorities silenced him at the end of October 2020.

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Jack Ma, 57, has become a star in his country and around the world. With Alibaba, which he created in 1999, the former English professor has democratized the Internet in China. Thanks to him, countless Chinese SMEs have become wealthy by finding outlets for their products. He became the richest man in the country and a mainstay at major international conferences like Davos. We saw him debate as equals with Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. His group, which employs more than 100,000 people, is now expanding outside of China. The AliExpress e-commerce platform is everywhere on the offensive. Including in France. A member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since his student years, this very media-friendly man seemed to benefit from the blessing of the communist authorities and in particular of Xi Jinping who came to power in 2014.

But on October 24, 2020, Jack Ma suddenly fell into disgrace. Twenty-one minutes and thirty seconds: it was the length of the speech that changed the course of his life. And which may have marked a turning point in the contemporary history of Chinese capitalism. The scene takes place in Shanghai. The businessman was invited to speak at the Bund Summit, a kind of local Davos organized on the joint initiative of several major financial institutions. At 11:15 sharp, navy blue suit, white shirt and tie, he settles behind the desk. The session is filmed in order to allow the many foreign participants, such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Nobel Prize winner in economics Joseph Stiglitz or former ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet, to follow the event by videoconference.

On the big screen in the room, Ma is presented as the co-chairman of a United Nations panel responsible for reflecting on digital cooperation and sustainable development. Logic: he left the operational management of Alibaba in September 2019 to devote himself, like his friend Bill Gates, to philanthropic tasks. In reality, he still follows business very closely and in particular the forthcoming IPO of the group’s financial branch, ANT, which owes its success to the mobile payment application Alipay (1 billion users!). He personally owns 11% of the shares in this business. If all goes well, he will hit the jackpot. This participation is estimated at this moment around 26 billion dollars. The evening before, he took part in a meeting whose purpose was to set the IPO price for ANT shares.

Jack Ma walks on water, convinced that his fortune will soon take another leap forward. His speeches are always eagerly awaited because he is accustomed to shock formulas. But his favorite subjects, management or education, do not make waves. This time, he decided to change register. He wants to denounce the weaknesses of the Chinese financial system. Is dared. In the room as in front of the screens, the event is broadcast live, all the officials concerned in the country are preparing to listen to it. Starting with Yi Gang, the governor of the country’s central bank!

Speaking in Mandarin, he connects the “punchlines”. “I’m practically retired today, he warns from the start, I thought I could speak freely in this forum and share the opinions of a non-specialist… Our country is facing a risk posed by the absence of a sound financial system. Today, the whole world, and especially China, needs more experts in politics and fewer experts in bureaucracy… it is not difficult to regulate, what is difficult is to put in place regulations that achieve the objective of producing healthy and sustainable development. And to castigate the mentality of “pawnbrokers” of Chinese banks “who like to grant loans to good companies, those who do not need money”.

With this speech, Jack Ma crosses a red line. Without knowing ? Was he intoxicated by his successes to the point of losing all political lucidity? Or, on the contrary, did he attempt, as some of those close to him now assume, a final gamble to stop negative measures against him of which he would have been informed? If this is the case, it is a failure: Beijing makes him pay very dearly and very quickly for this critical discourse. Especially since he decided to put his tech giants under control. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is even Xi Jinping himself who asks to sanction Jack Ma.

On November 3, just two days before D-Day, the authorities blocked the IPO, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, of ANT Group, which promised to break the world fundraising record held by the oil group. Saudi Aramco. In financial markets, the penalty is immediate: Alibaba’s share price plummets. On Wall Street, its value will be divided by 3.4 between its historic high recorded on October 23, the day before the fatal speech, and April 2022. At the same time, the State Administration for Market Regulation is launching an investigation to “suspicion of monopolistic practices” against Alibaba. The addition is salty: in April 2021, the trade regulator imposes a fine of 2.3 billion euros on it for abuse of a dominant position.

For Jack Ma, it’s a disaster scenario. His fortune indexed largely to the Alibaba share price is melting like snow in the sun. According to Forbes, it would have fallen from 60.7 billion dollars in 2020, to 23.2 billion in 2022.

The craziest rumors start to run. Jack Ma would be subject to a tough takeover as other leaders before him have been. In any case, it disappears from radar screens: we stop seeing it, we no longer hear it. His schedule is drastically lightened.

Journalists from the Financial Times daily provide proof of this in an article published on March 21. The RadarBox application allowed them to reconstruct the movements of the Gulfstream G650, the business jet he bought in August 2020 for an amount close to 75 million dollars. After verifying that the movements of the device correspond to its official agenda, they point to a sharp slowdown in flights after October 24, 2020. From one every three days between August 15 and October 29, their number drops to one per week between November 1 and February 26, 2021. Above all, these trips are clearly changing in nature. Example: on October 25, the day after his speech, Jack Ma flew to Beijing where he stayed for four days. The most likely hypothesis: he was summoned to explain himself.

Its dazzling trajectory also reflects the irresistible rise of China

  • 1978: President Deng Xiaoping opens the doors to China. The young Ma Yun, 14, goes to meet the first tourists who visit Hangzhou to improve his English.
  • 1984: He passes the Gaokao (the equivalent of the baccalaureate) and enters the university, the Hangzhou Teachers College.
  • 1988: He became an assistant professor of English at the Institute of Electronic Technology in Hangzhou.
  • 1994: He created his first company, the Haibo Translation Agency, to help companies establish contacts abroad.
  • 1995: During a trip to the United States, he discovered the Internet. He creates China Pages, a site that offers Chinese companies to present them for export.
  • 1997 : Jack Ma enters the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation and supervises the creation of several official sites.
  • 1999:He creates Alibaba, an e-commerce site for Chinese SMEs. The American bank Goldman Sachs and the Japanese SoftBank enter the capital of the company.
  • 2003: Alibaba launches Taobao.com, a rival site to the eBay platform in China.
  • 2004 : Launch of the Alipay payment system.
  • 2006: eBay leaves China.
  • 2007: Alibaba enters the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
  • 2009: On November 11, the Single Day, “single day”, established in the 1990s, becomes the world festival of shopping.
  • 2014 : Alibaba enters Wall Street.
  • 2015 : Alibaba buys the South China Morning Post.
  • 2019: Jack Ma withdraws from the management of Alibaba to devote himself to philanthropic activities.

Find the rest of our story on Jack Ma tomorrow with the 2nd episode, or in issue 369 of Capital on newsstands.

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