BEIJING – When Alibaba founder Jack Ma criticised the Chinese financial system during a speech at a high profile forum in October, industry watchers braced themselves.
Ant Group, the fintech titan also founded by Mr Ma, was days away from a record US$37 billion listing.
During the Bund Summit in Shanghai on Oct 24, the outlandish billionaire – who usually speaks off the cuff – launched a blistering attack on China’s banks and financial institutions. Reading from prepared remarks, he said they operated with a “pawn shop mentality” of requiring collateral before agreeing to lend money.
It set in course a now familiar series of events, including the pulling of Ant’s initial public offering, the investigation of the company by financial regulators, and most recently, speculation of whether Mr Ma has been detained.
While industry insiders and watchers say the potential backlash makes it unlikely the tech billionaire has been arrested, the bigger question that remains is the ramifications on Ant.
Mr Ma has not been seen in public since he gave that fateful 20-minute-long speech at the Bund Summit in late October.
His fighting words also marked the start of a downward trend in Alibaba share prices, losing some US$218.5 billion in market value, or about US$10.9 billion for every minute of Mr Ma’s oration.
And in President Xi Jinping’s China, where open dissent – much less criticism – is frowned upon, rumours are rife that Mr Ma, a Communist Party member, has been detained in the fashion of fellow billionaire Ren Zhiqiang.
Mr Ren, a property tycoon, went missing last year after writing an allegedly critical essay about Mr Xi. He later emerged in police custody and was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption.
The rumour mill went into overdrive after Mr Ma did not show up in the finale of his own show, Africa’s Business Heroes, where he is a judge. His profile has also been taken off the programme’s website.
But an executive in charge of government relations in a financial services firm said it was unlikely that Mr Ma had been detained.
“He’s probably just lying low now, as you would do, trying to calculate his next move,” said the executive, who declined to be named so as to openly discuss the industry.
“We were all shocked when (the government) stopped the IPO. But to move personally against Jack Ma is really something else altogether because he is such a public figure.”
But his fame could always work against him, said Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California Irvine who specialises in Chinese history.
“(Fame) could provide a bit of protection but in an authoritarian system where the leader is the focus of a personality cult, fame and popularity can actually make someone more rather than less vulnerable to attack,” he told The Straits Times.
Given the tight flow of information out of Zhongnanhai, the central government offices, there is no clarity about how the Alibaba founder is viewed within Mr Xi’s inner circle, Professor Wasserstrom said.
Since its founding in a Hangzhou apartment over two decades ago to help Chinese businesses sell internationally, the company has grown into one of China’s largest tech behemoths.
Between Ant and Alibaba, its businesses cover nearly every facet of Chinese daily life: e-commerce, food delivery, e-payments and even transport services.
Even contact tracing apps used during the coronavirus outbreak are hosted on the Alipay app.
Throughout, Mr Ma has maintained that the conglomerate is a technology company and that Ant, the financial services spinoff, should be viewed as a tech company and thus not subjected to the same sort of regulatory scrutiny as the regular financial institutions.
This did not go down well in Beijing: the central bank and the banking, insurance, securities and foreign exchange regulators summoned Mr Ma and Ant executives for a dressing down on Nov 2 last year.
The following day, the Shanghai Stock Exchange suddenly pulled Ant’s highly-anticipated debut, sending shockwaves throughout the financial world. It led to the firm later stopping its Hong Kong dual listing scheduled for Nov 5.
“Alibaba will actively cooperate with the regulators on the investigation. Company business operations remain normal,” the group said in a statement.
The group did not respond to multiple interview requests from ST.
Yet industry watchers say this has been long overdue: there are similar anti-monopoly laws already in place in Europe.
China’s Anti-Monopoly Law was first introduced in 2008 but it only started to be enforced in earnest last year when the Anti-Monopoly Commission investigated Ant Group’s payments arm Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay.
As for Alibaba, the firm is likely to be asked to stop monopolistic practices like asking vendors to choose between them or rival WeChat Pay and penalising merchants who do not sell exclusively on their platform.
“The Chinese antitrust regulator is unlikely to impose structural remedies such as breaking up Alibaba – I don’t see a strong legal basis for the regulator to do that,” Associate Professor Zhang told ST.
“Moreover, structural remedies would cause too much pain to the firm and erode investors’ confidence in Chinese tech firms.”
They are also likely to be subjected to a large fine – up to 10 per cent of the past year’s revenue – which will dwarf the 500,000 yuan fine they were slapped with last year for failing to seek regulatory approval and for misleading pricing and promotions.
“Unfortunately, all there is now is speculation, isn’t it? We live in an era where anything can happen so we can only wait and see (what happens to Jack Ma),” said the financial executive.