Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group and China’s best-known billionaire, has disappeared from the public eye after Beijing regulators halted the company’s stock market listing.
A former English teacher, Mr Ma, 56, founded what would become China’s primary e-commerce platform in 1999, five years after Amazon was founded in the US.
Alibaba’s online payments service Alipay followed five years later, before regulators in China had given the green light to such businesses, although the endeavours paid off and made Jack Ma one of the country’s most recognisable billionaires.
However, his plans to list Ant Group on the stock market were apparently forcibly shelved after he publicly criticised Chinese regulators in October – warning them they were too conservative and calling for them to support innovation.
He has not been seen in public since.
There has been speculation that his disappearance could mean he was detained by the authorities, although there is no evidence of this.
Others say the regulatory response to his incendiary speech would be reason enough for him to avoid additional attention.
His disappearance has also reminded people of Fan Binbing, China’s most famous actress who was arrested for tax evasion and went unseen for months before reappearing to make a public apology and express her loyalty to the Communist Party.
Finance experts say that President Xi Jinping’s government had been uncomfortable with Alibaba’s dominance in retailing long before Jack Ma’s speech.
They explained that regulators worried Ant might add to the financial risks that the Communist Party sees as one of the biggest threats to China’s economic growth.
Shaun Rein, a business consultant in Shanghai who said he meets Alibaba managers and people who know Ma, told Associated Press that none of them has said the billionaire is in legal trouble.
“They spanked him. He’s learned his lesson, and that’s why he’s been quiet for the past two months,” said Mr Rein, founder of China Market Research Group. “Some of his friends told me they can’t believe how stupid he was.”