Among the many features of Jack Ma’s speech to the Bund Summit last October — a calamitous address that criticised regulators and accused China’s state-owned banks of having a “pawnshop mentality” — three now stand out.
The first is that the Alibaba founder read his critique from sheets of paper. The second, based on the protracted share-price mauling that followed, is that the 20-minute speech cost the company roughly $12.8bn of market value for every 60 seconds of oratory. The third is that the October 24 event was the last time anyone saw China’s most famous businessman in public.
The latter two are a focus of intensifying speculation. The sinister invisibility of Mr Ma — whether forced or judiciously self-imposed by a man calculating how deeply to kowtow for rehabilitation — raises the spectre of a state determined to show that nobody, and no business, is untouchable.
The bleakest interpretation is that Chinese president Xi Jinping, egged on by state-owned bank supremos who resent Mr Ma’s disruption of their sector, has initiated some version of what Vladimir Putin did to the Yukos oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. That would be cutting down a billionaire challenger and seizing the source of his strength. It is also possible that Mr Ma’s disappearance is concealing the choreography required to avoid that outcome.
Meanwhile, the Alibaba share price remains justifiably punctured by the many questions the past two months have raised. These surround Alibaba’s future relationship with the state, the vulnerabilities of the Chinese tech sector to antitrust measures, and the status of private enterprise in the world’s second-biggest economy.
Pre-eminently, there is the immediate future of Ant Group, Mr Ma’s expansionist tech services conglomerate. Its planned $35bn share sale last November would have been the largest initial public offering in history — until it was blasted into limbo by financial regulators. Subsequent state-generated condemnation of Ant suggests that its critics want to ensure the company can never be the diamond-toothed profit miner of consumer finance that investors sought to value at $300bn.
Fuelling this speculation is the theory that Mr Ma has crossed a Rubicon with Xi Jinping. He has done so, runs this logic, after decades of merely dipping his toes in its waters and acquiring the sort of enemies that always hoped he would make a decisive transgression. China’s history of chief executive disappearances and abrupt regulatory crackdowns means the spectrum of possible outcomes for Mr Ma — from teeth-gritted statements of regret to full implosion — is both wide and alarmingly plausible. Beijing is now censoring local coverage of the probe.
The actual outcome may depend on the answer to a closely-related question: is the line that Mr Ma crossed an old and established one, or something new, less navigable and representative of Beijing policy change?
Both possibilities could be argued. What is certain, though, is that Mr Ma’s October speech clearly breached a fundamental rule in China: the Communist party doesn’t mind someone becoming rich, as long as the status that wealth confers is not used to mount anything resembling a political challenge. This is something Mr Ma has known and navigated successfully for almost 20 years.
All of which only deepens the mystery of why he said what he did in October. Deducing this, in some ways, is more important than ascertaining Mr Ma’s current location or freedom, and comes back to the mould-breaking delivery of the speech itself.
Long-term scrutineers of Mr Ma note how exceptionally rare it was for him to read from a written script and how odd for a known maestro of improvisation and room-reading to misjudge his audience. More fundamentally, there is no way of interpreting the speech as anything other than a criticism of the state-owned financial sector and, by extension, of the administration that sits behind it. It cannot have been written or delivered without knowing how it would resonate.
Still, explanations from those who know Mr Ma range from “he was incredibly stupid” to more elaborate theories about staggering wealth deluding people about appetite for their opinions.
Some conclude that Mr Ma may have believed his criticisms would receive quiet nods of agreement and that, because there had been pre-IPO distributions of Ant shares to the banks and the “all-China” nature of the listing, he had high-level protection. His miscalculation now looks spectacular, even by his astral standards of showmanship.
But the aberrant nature of the speech may hold the key to salvation. Mr Khodorkovsky was actually mounting a challenge to Mr Putin. For all his criticism of the regulators, and the speech’s revolutionary tone, Mr Ma is not attempting something similar with Mr Xi. It is possible that Mr Ma can use this phase of invisibility to carry out a delicate rebuilding exercise. Framing the speech as a moment of madness may provide him with the first step.
Letter in response to this column:
Jack Ma, Beijing and the basic law of banking / From Erik Famaey, Antwerp, Belgium