That interference escalated into a full-scale regulatory crackdown, in which the government portrayed the tech sector as a force that needed to be reined in for the good of society.
Almost every top tech company has had to make corrections, and Alibaba was no exception. Ride-hailing group Didi was probed and voluntarily delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. Online marketplace Tmall was fined for irregular pricing. Ma’s Ant Group has been restructured, with its consumer finance branch regulated as a financial institution.
Top-level officials have reassured the industry that the government crackdown is, if not over, then winding down. Didi was allowed back onto app stores. The economy is starting to pick up. But the prevailing sentiment is still uncertainty. “Confidence in tech companies has dropped a lot,” Zhao says. “It will take a long time for the market to gain confidence again.”
Ma’s return was heralded by some as a sign of rapprochement between Big Tech and the government—although Ma no longer controls Ant Group.
There is a rumor going around the tech industry that Ma was invited back to China by premier Li Qiang. Li, who has held senior roles across the country, most recently in the financial center of Shanghai, built a reputation for championing private business. Under his watch, Tesla became the first foreign automaker to wholly own its Chinese plant and Shanghai’s version of Nasdaq launched, giving tech companies more access to capital. Since becoming premier, Li has toured the country, talking about advanced manufacturing and core technologies, and met with foreign delegations to discuss international investment. The message seems to be that China isn’t as opposed to private enterprise as was previously thought.
It’s not clear if Ma’s rehabilitation—if that’s what this is—was intended to support that message. The day he arrived, Alibaba shares surged 5.5 percent (although they soon fell back). The following day, Alibaba announced plans to split into six units, each able to raise outside funding and go public. Its shares closed 14.3 percent higher after the news.
With uncertainty still looming across the industry, the tech sector may need more than symbolic gestures to get investment flowing again. “There needs to be aggressive institutional measures to assure businesses their operating environment will be good,” Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Chim Lee says. “It takes more than Jack Ma coming back to restore confidence.”
In fact, Ma has come back not as an entrepreneur, but as a teacher. He’s returned to who he was before he founded Alibaba (in the company offices, employees called him Teacher Ma). He has taken an honorary professorship at Hong Kong University, though he will only conduct research in that role, in addition to accepting visiting professorships with universities in Japan, Rwanda, and Israel. His first public stop in China was at the school he founded in Hangzhou. Dressed down in leisure wear and Allbirds shoes, he spoke about the challenges AI posed to education. ChatGPT was only the beginning of the AI era, he said.
Although Ma is still a massive figure in tech, people have moved on. With Ma out of the public eye, they now hang on the words of entrepreneurs like Xiaomi’s Lei Jun and Qihoo 360’s Zhou Hongyi. The news is captured less by Web 2.0 companies and more by those developing AI and EVs. People are looking at Baidu’s attempt to compete with Chat GPT.
In an era when government is once again central to the economy, the conversation around private enterprise no longer focuses on a single figure. “The era when these kinds of tech entrepreneurs were seen as the driving force of China’s economy has passed,” Lee says. Ma’s quote was on point. Success isn’t up to him.
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