Alibaba founder Jack Ma has returned to China after spending more than a year overseas in a sign of a possible easing of Beijing’s crackdown on its technology sector.
Once one of the country’s most outspoken businessmen, Ma retreated from the public limelight in late 2020 after criticising China’s regulatory system. His speech was later blamed for triggering a wide-ranging regulatory crackdown by Beijing.
He left mainland China in late 2021 and has been seen in photographs in Japan, Australia and Thailand in the months since.
Most recently, Ma relinquished control over Ant Group, a Chinese fintech giant he founded, in an overhaul that seeks to draw a line under a wider regulatory crackdown.
The news of his return was first reported by the South China Morning Post, saying Ma visited a school he founded in the city of Hangzhou — the home of Alibaba and financial technology firm Ant Group.
The school, Yungu Education, on Monday said on its WeChat account that Ma had visited its premises and posted photographs as well as a video of the Alibaba founder at the school.
“Teacher Ma said that technologies such as ChatGPT have brought challenges to education, but technologies such as ChatGPT are just the beginning of the AI era,” the school said in the post.
“Teacher Ma has never stayed away from school, but participated in and supported education in various ways,” it added.
— CN Wire (@Sino_Market) March 27, 2023
Boost for private sector
SCMP did not state when Ma reached China, but added that he made a brief stop in Hong Kong before the return.
Chinese authorities said in recent months they had ended the crackdown on technology and other private companies, adding they would look for ways to support the sector. But Chinese entrepreneurs said they saw Ma’s decision to stay overseas as a factor hindering confidence.
“The market seems to believe that the more public appearance Ma gets, the more friendly the government is towards private businesses,” Angela Zhang, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong told the SCMP.
Alibaba shares in Hong Kong rose more than 4% following reports of his return. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The news of Jack Ma’s return comes on the final day of the China Development forum, a government-funded event being held in Beijing.
The annual summit is being held in full force again after the country dismantled its zero-Covid regime late last year. More than 100 overseas delegates are attending the event, including executives from multinationals and representatives from foreign organisations.
China has been working to boost its technology sector in the face of rising US restrictions and sanctions. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for boosting the country’s self-reliance in technology.
The overall easing of the private sector crackdown is also part of efforts to boost the Chinese economy as it faces multiple headwinds, including falling domestic and overseas demand for its products, continuing crisis in its property sector and the impact over two years of its stringent Covid curbs.
- Reuters, with inputs from Vishakha Saxena