Economy

Jack Ma quits as head of leading China business group

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has stepped down as president of an important business group in his home province, as the Chinese billionaire continues to shun the limelight while spending time abroad.

Before running afoul of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s crackdown on tech companies, Ma often gave lively speeches at the annual year-end bash of the General Association of Zhejiang Entrepreneurs, which he helped found in 2015.

The association is China’s most prominent networking group for founders, helping Zhejiang’s legions of entrepreneurs connect with each other throughout the country and around the world. The eastern province is known as China’s hotbed of capitalism.

But on Wednesday the Zhejiang group said it had transitioned Ma to a new role as “adviser”, replacing him with Nan Cunhui, chair of Chint Group, an energy solutions provider.

Ma has recently been living in Tokyo as he rides out stricter Covid-19 control measures at home and Beijing’s tougher stance on tech groups. He did not attend the Zhejiang event this year, two people involved with the group said.

The Chinese billionaire has mostly disappeared from public view since giving an ill-timed speech in Shanghai two years ago, criticising the country’s state-owned banks and lobbying for regulators to show a lighter touch on overseeing new financial players like his own Ant Group.

The speech led Xi to cancel Ant’s blockbuster $37bn initial public offering and demand a complete overhaul of the fintech group, which remains in process. It also triggered the crackdown on China’s tech giants and influential businessmen such as Ma.

The moves extended to Ma’s elite business school Hupan University, which has been forced to largely curtail its activities.

The two people close to the Zhejiang business group said the association had been weighing replacing Ma ever since Ant’s troubles began, but had decided to wait until the furore around him settled down. One of the people said the local government had increased its control and oversight of the business group, to the point that it was now just an “arm of the government”. 

The irreverent tone of its annual meeting has also been tempered. “Even without Alibaba, a lot of the traditional retail industry would have collapsed — we just sped up your fall,” Ma told his fellow entrepreneurs at the group’s third annual meeting.

Another year, he told his peers his epitaph should read: “Hangzhou guy, loved Taichi, did a lot of things and set up an enterprise on the way.”

In contrast, the headline speaker for Wednesday’s affair was Qiu Qiwen, a top Communist party official in Zhejiang.

The group must “completely implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important exposition on the development of the private economy,” he lectured attendees, according to a post on the Zhejiang Entrepreneur’s WeChat social media account. “You must strengthen your political understanding and lead the broad masses of Zhejiang entrepreneurs to follow the party.”

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