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Record Penalty for Ma’s Alibaba Marks Tumultuous Stretch for its Founder

Ma, who stepped down from Alibaba in 2019 but looms large in the corporate psyche and in the eyes of investors, had revelled in pushing boundaries with audacious statements, taking a high profile even as most Chinese peers kept their heads down.

Friends in high places, as well as pride in Alibaba’s success, had protected Ma, sources have said.

That was until his Shanghai speech triggered a backlash that led to the scuppering of a blockbuster $37 billion IPO for Alibaba financial technology affiliate Ant Group, as well as a clampdown by authorities on the e-commerce giant itself and the wider “platform economy”, which continues to reverberate.

Ant, whose rapid growth and freewheeling lending practices drew regulatory concern about financial risk, remains subject to an enforced restructuring that is expected to rein in some of its most profitable businesses and slash its valuation.

“Entrepreneurship has to be disruptive. But being provocative to the government has its limits,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA China and author of a book on Alibaba and Ma.

Saturday’s settlement, he said, “should draw a line” under the matter for Alibaba.]

“But for Ant and Jack, there’s no line drawn yet,” he said.

Alibaba declined to comment on Ma, and his foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

CONSPICUOUS ABSENCE

Ma’s absence from public view became conspicuous until he surfaced for the first time in three months in late January, speaking to a group of teachers by video, which sent Alibaba shares surging. He has continued to keep an extremely low profile.

“He’s playing a lot of golf and improving his handicap,” said one person who knows him.

A former English teacher, Ma co-founded Alibaba in 1999 from a shared apartment in the eastern city of Hangzhou, ultimately building a colossus that spans e-commerce, financial services, cloud computing and even supermarkets, making him China’s most famous businessman.

He was also China’s richest, until the clampdown knocked him back to fourth place on the Hurun Global Rich List published in March, although Ma and his family’s wealth still grew last year by 22% to 360 billion yuan, according to the list.

As of last July, he owned 4.8% of Alibaba.

In 2018, Ma was revealed to be a Communist Party member by its official newspaper, debunking a public assumption that he was politically unattached.


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