Chinese billionaire and Alibaba group founder Jack Ma is suspected to be missing following his mysterious disappearance from the public eye for over two months after Beijing's aggressive crackdown on his business empire.
China's third-richest man was slated to appear as a star judge on the season finale of Africa's Business Heroes, a reality TV show created by his own philanthropic organisation. However, he dropped out of the appearance and the show's broadcast was postponed, reported Hollywood Reporter.
Formerly known for his government connections and rare outspokenness, Jack Ma's trouble with the Chinese government began when he gave a speech criticising China's regulators and State-owned banks for their 'backwardness'.
His remarks are said to have infuriated Beijing's party brass, leading to Chinese President Xi Jinping to personally order a halt to the offering by Alibaba's financial affiliate company, Ant Financial, which was set to raise USD 34 billion in the biggest stock-market debut in history, reported Hollywood Reporter.
In early November, Beijing cancelled the IPO of Ant Financial, while in late December Chinese regulators announced that they would launch an antitrust investigation into Alibaba's e-commerce business as well as enforcing new rules to curb Ant's business activities. These new enforcements led to a decline in Alibaba's shares and Jack Ma's personal wealth.
According to a report by the New York Times, Jack Ma publicly castigated financial regulators for being obsessed with minimising risk and accused China's banks of behaving like 'pawnshops' by lending only to those who could put up collateral.
"Based on my understanding, what President Xi said about 'enhancing governing ability' meant orderly regulation to maintain healthy and sustainable development, not just regulation without development," NHK World quoted Jack Ma.
Jack Ma's public image has also drastically shifted following his remarks, with people calling him 'villain', 'bloodsucking ghost' and more.
The report mentioned that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems more than willing to tap into a long-running resentment of the rich, which could mean trouble ahead for Chinese entrepreneurs and private businesses under Xi Jinping.
Of late, China has been stepping up efforts to curb the influence of big tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent.
In November, China released draft regulations aimed at preventing these firms from colluding to share sensitive consumer data, forming agreements to block out smaller rivals and engaging in other anticompetitive behaviour, reported The Wall Street Journal.
In addition, a meeting of the CCP's politburo, chaired by Xi in early December, pledged to strengthen antimonopoly efforts next year and to "prevent the disorderly expansion of capital", a message seen as portending a larger crackdown on internet giants. Jack Ma is said to be a key target of these new policies.
The Wall Street Journal also reported that Beijing is seeking to shrink Jack Ma's technology and financial empire and potentially take a larger stake in his businesses, according to some Chinese officials and government advisers familiar with the matter, while regulators zero in on the billionaire in a campaign to strengthen control of an increasingly influential tech domain.