Ma, meanwhile, hasn’t been seen in public since he gave his speech in Shanghai — a notable absence for a man who typically has no issue with the spotlight, and whose businesses now face their biggest threat in years.
“I think there’s one overall message that the party is really sending, and that is that tech entrepreneurs may be the most glamorous, the most publicly favorable face that China is showing to the world,” said Rana Mitter, professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University. “But there is no one individual, no one company bigger than the Chinese Communist Party.”
Many observers of China say Ma is most likely lying low as authorities turn up the heat on his businesses, having gotten the hint about speaking out of turn.
But it’s also not unlike Beijing to dole out severe punishment for prominent Chinese figures who clash with the interests of the Communist Party.
A larger-than-life figure
As his companies, grew, Ma became the friendly face of China’s economic rise. He frequently met with heads of state — Ma has lunched with former President Barack Obama and taken selfies with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron — and last year even donated Covid-19 supplies around the world.
On one level, Chinese authorities liked that Ma represented a high-powered and glamorous version of China “because one of the things the Chinese Communist Party has found it almost impossible to do is to create soft power in the world,” said Mitter, the Oxford professor.
“The squelching of the big name tech entrepreneurs is part of that wider process by the party to take back control, and really rewrite the narrative of how China’s tech innovation takes place only under the circumstances the party will allow,” Mitter said.
The last of his kind
The Chinese government wants its narrative about the Ant Group IPO to dominate the public conversation, said Duncan Clark, author of “Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built” and founder of investment advisory firm BDA China. He added that the company likely knows that it won’t help to have any “diversity of opinion” on the issue.
“But certainly it’s remarkable … the silence is somewhat deafening,” Clark said, adding that he expects Ma to eventually come out publicly with a scripted statement about contributing to reform in China.
“He got the signal that ‘I spoke too much, that caused me trouble so I need to shut myself up’,” said Angela Zhang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has studied Chinese antitrust enforcement.
Loss of ‘soft power’
“The ability of a figure like Jack Ma to speak out will be harder, and I think this will actually create a further problem for China’s desire to generate soft power,” Mitter said. “Nobody really takes seriously figures from any country who go around the world simply spouting the government line.”