Mystery surrounds Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s whereabouts as China targets Alibaba

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Chinese billionaire Jack Ma – the man behind Asia’s version of Amazon – has slipped to third in the country’s rich list after criticising authorities and disappearing from his own TV show.

Chief executive and founder of budget e-commerce marketplace Pinduoduo Colin Huang has overtaken Ma of Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings’ Pony Ma Huateng to become the country’s second richest person.

He now has a current net worth of US$63.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The news comes as mystery surrounds the whereabouts of Jack Ma, who vanished from his own TV talent show. There has been no sign of him since late October.

On Wednesday, shares of Nasdaq-listed Pinduoduo rose 7.77 per cent in New York, lifting its market capitalisation to nearly US$220 billion.

It marked the second day in a row that the five-year-old start-up passed the US $200 billion mark in value.

Huang’s wealth in China is now behind only Zhong Shanshan, the chairman of bottled water giant Nongfu Spring that recently completed a record-breaking HK$677 billion (US$87 billion) Hong Kong IPO in September 2020.

The fate of the country’s largest e-commerce, delivery and social media platforms has been in limbo since Beijing drafted a document to crackdown on the ‘platform economy’ in early November.

Meanwhile, Ma’s profile has gone from the judging webpage of Africa’s Business Heroes – a Dragons’ Den-style TV programme for budding entrepreneurs. The final took place without him and he is also absent from promotional videos.

Weeks before the final in November, Mr Ma had tweeted that he ‘couldn’t wait’ to meet the contestants. There has been no activity since then on the father-of-three’s Twitter account, one that had regularly seen several tweets a day.

Despite being one of China’s most successful businessmen, Mr Ma has increasingly clashed with the regime over his preferences for more of an open and market-driven economy. There is no suggestion so far that he has come to physical harm.

Until recently he had been a leading light of China’s unique approach to generating wealth by unleashing market forces within a tightly-controlled communist framework.

The English teacher turned business magnate commanded near rock star status and even played an unconquerable kung fu master in a star-studded 2017 film.

And even while tensions between the US and China were deepening, Mr Ma was able to extend an olive branch by donating 2,000 ventilators to New York with his right-hand man Joe Tsai, prompting a thank you from Donald Trump.

But the stock market launch of Mr Ma’s payments firm Ant was scuppered by regulators in what many saw as a retaliatory move for his explosive speech in Shanghai in October.

Since then, regulators have met with executives from Ant and ordered it to improve its corporate governance, its compliance with regulation and its habit of using its size to push competitors out of the market.

In the process Mr Ma, who is married to Cathy Zhang, 55, has completely disappeared from public view – a sudden change all the more remarkable given his previously huge public profile.

The authorities have also announced an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba.