September 30, 2023

The return of China’s most prominent entrepreneur could help assuage private business fears following a crackdown by regulators.

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Jack Ma, the founder of tech giant Alibaba, has rarely made public appearances in China, which may be indicative of the government’s efforts to quell unrest in the country’s tech sector after two years of tough regulation.

The most prominent Chinese entrepreneur has kept a low profile since late 2020, when his speech criticizing Chinese regulators was followed by Beijing canceling a planned IPO of Alibaba subsidiary Ant Group. The company was then hit with a record $2.75 billion fine for alleged bad faith practices.

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Ma has been seen around the world over the past two years and has reportedly been living in Japan for most of 2022.

He returned to China last week, two people familiar with the matter said, cited by Reuters news agency. It is not yet clear how long he plans to stay in China.

school visit

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On Monday, he visited a school founded by Alibaba partners in the eastern city of Hangzhou, according to a post on the school’s official social media account.

Ma, a former English teacher, met with staff and visited classrooms before talking about the challenges artificial intelligence (AI) could create for education.

“ChatGPT and similar technologies are just the beginning of the AI ​​era,” Ma said in the post. “We should use artificial intelligence to solve problems, not be controlled by it.”

Ma has been one of the most high-profile targets of official crackdowns over alleged anti-competitive practices by some of China’s largest tech companies, sparked by fears that big internet companies control too much data and expand too quickly.

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Ant Group said in January that Ma ceded control of the fintech company, adjusting its ownership structure so that “no single shareholder, alone or jointly with other parties, can control Ant Group.”

In a sign that the official grip may now be loosening, authorities said in December that Ant had received approval to raise 10.5 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) for its consumer finance arm.

Analysts say Ma’s public resurgence is supporting a softening of the government’s tone towards the private sector as leaders try to shore up an economy hit by three years of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Ma’s return “boosts the mood of the broader platform and the Internet industry,” Zhang Jihua, chief investment officer of Beijing Yunyi Asset Management, told Reuters.

“Because it means that the new top management was really re-evaluating the position and importance of platform companies in China’s economic development.”

“The previous restrictive policy on the platform and the Internet sector is also expected to be adjusted,” Zhang added.

Alibaba shares jumped more than 4% after the news of Ma’s return to China, after which they lost some of their profits.