Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma 'in Hong Kong' After Media Investment Ban

Ma's reported visit to Hong Kong comes after Beijing signals a ban on private-sector involvement in the media.
By Qiao Long
Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma 'in Hong Kong' After Media Investment Ban Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba group, sings a song during an event to mark the 20th anniversary of Alibaba in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province, Sept. 10, 2019.
Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma is currently in Hong Kong, amid reports that he is in the process of divesting from a slew of media companies following calls for a ban on such investments by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, according to Reuters.

Ma, who founded the Alibaba Group, has been keeping a low profile since his criticism of China's financial regulators in October 2020, which was quickly followed by the government pulling the plug on a planned U.S. $35 billion initial public offering (IPO) for Ma's fintech Ant Group in Hong Kong.

Reuters quoted two people on Wednesday as saying that Ma is currently meeting with business associates in Hong Kong, where Alibaba holds the controlling stake in the English-language South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper.

While Ma was initially lionized by state media as a loyal entrepreneur and billionaire, his huge wealth and power are increasingly being seen as a threat to CCP rule, political commentators have told RFA.

Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Ma is under pressure from Chinese regulators to sell off Alibaba's media assets, which include stakes in online news providers and newspapers including the SCMP, television production companies, social media and advertising.

Alibaba didn't respond to requests for comment from RFA during office hours on Wednesday.

Ma was last photographed in public visiting greenhouses in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where Alibaba and Ant are headquartered. The following day, Ma pledged to invest 100 billion yuan (U.S. $15.5 billion) in CCP leader Xi Jinping's "common prosperity" program aimed at easing social inequality.

Pulling out of media

While RFA was unable to confirm the report of Ma's appearance in Hong Kong independently, the report comes amid growing reports of Alibaba's divestment from the media industry.

On Sept. 23, Mango SuperMedia announced that Hangzhou Ali Ventures would transfer approximately 93.65 million shares in the company -- representing its entire stake of around five percent -- less than one year after acquiring them.

Chinese financial websites including NetEase Technology and Sohu reported on Oct. 12 that Ma's Ant Group has sold all of its shares in Caixin Media after investing tens of millions of yuan in 2016.

Ant Group has now disappeared from the list of Caixin shareholders, Sohu reported, while Tencent holds 4.5655 percent of Caixin shares through the Shenzhen Litong Industrial Investment Fund.

Veteran political journalist Gao Yu said the move is likely linked to an Oct. 8 proposal by the State Development and Reform Commission to ban private investment in any media organizations.

"That was a fulfillment [of that directive]," Gao told RFA. "Jack Ma has been involved in the media industry for a long time."

"He still owns the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, [but] all media shares must now be turned over to state-owned investors," she said.

Independent commentator Cai Shenkun said the CCP's goal under general secretary Xi Jinping is to shrink the private sector at the expense of the state-owned sector of the economy.

"As for Jack Ma’s future, it could go two ways," Cai said. "One is that he gives up all of those controlling stakes, because the leading role he once imagined for himself in his country's future is not happening."

"And it's not just Jack Ma: all of these big businessmen will soon be history," Cai said. "Even if he is in Hong Kong, that doesn't mean that there's any let-up, or that he can leave via Hong Kong."

"It takes a while to boil a frog."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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