story. How Jack Ma, the richest man in China, disappeared from radar screens

Friday, September 17, 2021, Adirondack Regional Airport in upstate New York. It’s 9am, it’s still cold and the skies overcast when a large private jet, a white Gulfstream G650 adorned with a thin navy blue ribbon, lands gently on the lone runway. Nothing unusual a priori. The venue, located an hour and 30 flights north of Manhattan, is famous for hosting planes of all sizes for the many dignitaries who come to stay in their second home. Forests and lakes make for a very popular landscape in this mountain range that extends into the Appalachian Range.

But the plane, which is slowly approaching the hangars and the small wooden buildings of the station, has a peculiarity: thanks to its registration, VP-CZM, we can reveal that it belongs to billionaire Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba. Is he on the plane? The journey’s starting point – Hong Kong, where Jack Ma lives – and its arrival point raise suspicion. In June 2015, for $23 million, he acquired an 11,500-hectare nature reserve located in the Adirondacks, near the small airport. Called Brandon Park, this eight-building estate was once owned by the Rockefellers. Its forests are famous for harboring white-tailed deer. An ideal haven to protect yourself from prying eyes. Especially since you can easily get in and out of the airport without being noticed.

A few days later, his plane departed (with him?) in the direction of Plattsburgh, another small and top-secret airport, near New York, before returning to Hong Kong, much later, on December 9, 2021. No testimony, no photograph not confirming that the entrepreneur He stayed across the Atlantic on this occasion. But if so, it will be a secret trip, the first for the businessman abroad since he was silenced by the Chinese authorities at the end of October 2020.

Jack Ma, 57, has become a star in his country and around the world. With Alibaba, which he established in 1999, the former English professor democratized the Internet in China. Thanks to him, countless small and medium-sized Chinese companies have become rich by finding outlets for their products. He became the richest man in the country and a mainstay at major international conferences such as Davos. We saw him arguing on a par with Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. His group, which employs more than 100,000 people, is now expanding outside of China. AliExpress e-commerce platform everywhere is in attack mode. Including in France. A member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since his student years, this very media friendly man seemed to be benefiting from the blessing of the communist authorities especially Xi Jinping who took power in 2014.

But on October 24, 2020, Jack Ma suddenly fell into disgrace. Twenty-one minutes and thirty seconds: It was the duration of the speech that changed the course of his life. Which may have constituted a turning point in the contemporary history of Chinese capitalism. The scene in Shanghai. The businessman was invited to speak at the Bond Summit, a kind of local Davos forum organized with the joint initiative of several major financial institutions. At 11:15, in a navy blue suit, white shirt and tie, he settled behind the desk. The session was filmed in order to allow several foreign participants, such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz or former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, to follow the event by video.

On the big screen in the room, Ma is presented as co-chair of the United Nations Commission Responsible for Thinking about Digital Cooperation and Sustainable Development. Logic: He left Alibaba’s operational management in September 2019 to devote himself, like his friend Bill Gates, to charitable causes. In fact, he is still following the business closely especially the upcoming IPO of the group’s financial subsidiary, ANT, which owes its success to the mobile payment app Alipay (one billion users!). He personally owns 11% of the shares in this business. If all goes well, he will win the jackpot. This participation is estimated at the moment at about 26 billion dollars. The night before, he participated in a meeting that was intended to determine the IPO price of ANT shares.

Jack Ma walks on the water, convinced that his fortune will soon take another leap forward. His speeches are always eagerly awaited because he is used to the shocking formulas. But his favorite subjects, management or education, don’t make waves. This time, he decided to change the record. He wants to denounce the weaknesses in the Chinese financial system. dared. In the room as in front of the screens, the event is being broadcast live, and all state officials are preparing to hear it. Starting with Yi Gang, the country’s central bank governor!

Speaking in Mandarin, he connects ‘lines of regret’. “I am practically retired today, he warned upon entering, I think I can speak freely in this forum and exchange opinions of non-professionals … Our country is in danger of not having a sound financial system. Today, the whole world, especially China, needs more experts in Politics and fewer experts in the bureaucracy … It is not difficult to regulate, but what is difficult is to put in place systems that achieve the goal of achieving healthy and sustainable development. And criticize the mentality of “mortgage brokers” of Chinese banks “who like to give loans to good companies, and who do not need to Money”.

With this speech, Jack Ma crossed a red line. Without knowing ? Is his success so drunk that he loses all political clarity? Or, on the contrary, did he try, as some of his relatives now suppose, to make a last gamble to stop the negative actions against him which could have been reported to him? If that’s the case, it’s a failure: Beijing is making him pay dearly, very quickly, for this critical rhetoric. Especially since he decided to put the tech giants under control. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is Xi Jinping himself who is asking to punish Jack Ma.

On November 3, just two days before D-Day, authorities blocked the initial public offering in Shanghai and Hong Kong of ANT Group, which had promised to break the world fundraising record held by the oil group, Saudi Aramco. In the financial markets, the penalty is instant: Alibaba’s stock price drops. On Wall Street, its value will be split by 3.4 between its all-time high on October 23, the day before the killer speech, and April 2022. Meanwhile, the State Administration for Market Regulation is launching an investigation of “suspected monopolistic practices” against Alibaba. Addition is salty: in April 2021, the Trade Regulatory Authority imposed a fine of 2.3 billion euros on it for abusing a dominant position.

For Jack Ma, it’s a disastrous scenario. His fortune largely rated on Alibaba’s stock price is melting like snow in the sun. According to Forbes, it could have fallen from $60.7 billion in 2020 to $23.2 billion in 2022.

The craziest rumors start to surface. Jack Ma will undergo a difficult takeover just as the other leaders before him have been. In any case, it disappears from the radar screens: we stop seeing it, we no longer hear it. His schedule has been greatly relaxed.

Journalists from the Financial Times provide evidence of this in an article published on March 21. RadarBox allowed them to reconstruct the motions of the Gulfstream G650, a business jet they purchased in August 2020 for nearly $75 million. After checking that the device’s movements align with its official agenda, they report a sharp slowdown in flights after October 24, 2020. From one day every three days between August 15 and October 29, their number drops to one per week between November 1. and February 26, 2021. Above all, these flights are clearly changing in nature. Example: On October 25, the day after his speech, Jack Ma traveled to Beijing where he stayed for four days. Most likely hypothesis: He was called to explain himself.

Its amazing trajectory also reflects the irresistible rise of China

  • 1978: President Deng Xiaoping opens the doors to China. Young Ma Yun, 14, goes to meet the first tourists who visit Hangzhou to improve his English.
  • 1984: He passed Gaokao (equivalent to baccalaureate) and entered the university, Hangzhou Teachers College.
  • 1988: He became an assistant professor of English at the Institute of Electronic Technology in Hangzhou.
  • 1994: He set up his first company, Haibo Translation Agency, to help companies establish relationships with overseas.
  • 1995: During a trip to the United States, he discovered the Internet. He created China Pages, a site that offers Chinese companies to offer for export.
  • 1997 : Jack Ma joins the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation and oversees the creation of several official websites.
  • 1999:He created Alibaba, an e-commerce site for Chinese small and medium businesses. American bank Goldman Sachs and Japanese SoftBank are entering the capital of the company.
  • 2003: Alibaba launched, a competitor to the eBay platform in China.
  • 2004: The launch of the Alipay payment system.
  • 2006: eBay is leaving China.
  • 2007: Alibaba enters the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
  • 2009: On November 11, One Day, ‘One Day’, established in the 1990s, became the global shopping festival.
  • 2014: Ali Baba enters Wall Street.
  • 2015: Alibaba buys the South China Morning Post.
  • 2019: Jack Ma quits the management of Alibaba to devote himself to charitable activities.

Find the rest of our story on Jack Ma tomorrow with Episode 2, or in Issue 369 of Capital on newsstands.

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