Alibaba's Jack Ma appears for first time since regulatory crackdown

Beijing (AFP) –


Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese internet behemoth Alibaba, made his first public appearance in over two months in an online video Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation about his whereabouts.

Ma -- one of China's richest people with a fortune estimated at around $58 billion -- disappeared from the public eye in early November, when he was hauled in front of regulators for an October speech critical of China's outdated financial system.

Shortly afterwards, the record-breaking $37 billion IPO of his financial group Ant was spiked at the last minute by Chinese regulators in a shock move which some saw as retaliation for Ma's outspokenness.

But a video clip of Ma giving a congratulatory speech to rural teachers as part of an annual awards ceremony organised by his charity was published on social media by Chinese financial news outlets Wednesday morning.

In the speech, Ma praised China's poverty alleviation efforts, a central target of the Communist leadership, and vowed to dedicate more efforts towards helping rural teachers.

"My colleagues and I... are even more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare," he said, according to a transcript of his speech published by Chinese news site Tianmu News.

"China has... entered a new stage of development, and is moving towards common prosperity."

A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation, his charitable arm, confirmed that Ma "participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event".

Shares in Alibaba were up 7 percent in Hong Kong by early afternoon Wednesday.

Since the Ant IPO was quashed, Chinese regulators have launched an anti-monopoly probe into Alibaba.

Both Alibaba and Ant said they will cooperate with regulatory requests.

Ma, a charismatic former teacher turned internet entrepreneur, retired as chairman of Alibaba in 2019 but has long attracted attention for his outspokenness and flamboyant antics, performing as a rockstar at company conferences.

The continued squeeze on one of China's most influential companies is the latest sign that the leadership is ready to deflate the ambitions of big tech firms in a runaway internet sector.

Beijing has a history of disappearing, investigating and imprisoning financial tycoons who do not toe the party line.

Last year, outspoken real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was jailed for 18 years on alleged corruption charges, months after penning an essay critical of the Communist Party.