STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Jack Ma is one of the world's most successful businesspeople. And until recently, he was also among the more visible. The founder of China's giant company Alibaba often turned up in interviews or at conferences or on TV. In 2017, he gave advice at the World Economic Forum.
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JACK MA: Every day's uncertain. The only certain day was yesterday. That's why I should retire early.
INSKEEP: The man who said every day is uncertain now faces an uncertain fate. And the man who often spoke in public has not appeared in months. He recently missed scheduled TV appearances. It's becoming more clear that this billionaire is out of favor with China's government. So what exactly happened to Jack Ma? To find out, we placed a call to Beijing. A tech firm adviser named Duncan Clark knows Jack Ma's business empire.
DUNCAN CLARK: Amazon and Alibaba have some similarities, but Alibaba is more than that because imagine if, you know, half of the transactions you do in your day in the U.S. were also controlled by the same company.
INSKEEP: Alibaba created a service called Alipay. It's a system for making payments by phone using QR codes. It's now used for billions of transactions and is making cash nearly obsolete. Alipay was spun off into a company called Ant Financial. Last fall, Ant Financial was on the verge of an IPO, an initial public offering of stock, potentially the largest in history. And that's when things started to go wrong. Duncan Clark, who wrote a book about Jack Ma, has known him for decades.
CLARK: Jack Ma is an unusual tech entrepreneur in that he's not a tech guy at all. He had a pretty modest background, doesn't come from wealth or connections. He was formerly an English teacher that, on his sort of third attempt outside of the teaching, became a very successful entrepreneur. He's an amazing communicator, which is odd because the reason we're talking about him is that he gave a terrible speech that - much like a bit that didn't go well.
INSKEEP: What did he say in October?
CLARK: Well, in October, he was speaking at something called a Bund Finance Summit in Shanghai. He was not the most important person in the room if you think in terms of the government regulators who were there. And he proceeded to basically tell them that they were, you know, anachronistic, that you cannot, for example, run an airport like the way you run a train station. And then he effectively - not only he initially launched into an attack on the global financial regulatory system of banking, but then he kind of moved his topic to China and said, as I described, that he thought they were out of touch and that there was a new revolution coming. It was actually almost a call for revolution in terms of the finance sector.
INSKEEP: What happened to his IPO after this speech?
CLARK: It never happened. The stock was supposed to start trading in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. It was a dual listing. And, you know, initially, the regulators in China said it's suspended. We've never heard an update. Subsequently, the government has announced investigation into the sector, also into Alibaba itself and other tech platforms, saying that, you know, it's a time to check whether there's monopolistic behavior or excess power. So I think underlying this pushing back on Jack Ma is also a reassertion of the role of the state in the economy, which is very much part of President Xi Jinping's agenda.
INSKEEP: When and where was Jack Ma last seen, then?
CLARK: Then. I mean, basically, I think after he left the stage, in terms of public appearances, there hasn't been one in two months now. My understanding is that he's been told to lay low. I think he just - basically, they want him back in his box. And one wonders if there's some degree of jealousy or irritation for President Xi or, you know, the government in general, that this, you know, rather uncontrollable figure is popping up in different places around the world.
INSKEEP: To state the obvious, you can be in a lucrative position but also a very powerful position if you're present when money is changing hands. And here's this guy running this company that is almost literally everywhere that money is changing hands. Is that such a powerful place to be that China's government would be especially concerned about what that company and what its leaders would do?
CLARK: Right. Well, there is talk that maybe the government wants to, you know, take a stake or even take over these core payment companies because they're so essential both for the smooth operation of commerce but also on a social level. And this was what Ant did, basically - was use this payment mechanism, which actually, by the way, isn't very profitable because they're not making that much money on these transactions. But all the data they were building up - they were then starting to sell financial products to these consumers because they knew - they could see how much they were earning, how much they were spending. So it's like perfect transparency. So ultimately, yeah, I think the government realized that this power was something - that they needed it themselves. I think there will be a joint statement at some point by the government, maybe Jack personally, to reassure people that - you know, he's - like a proof-of-life kind of thing but also that they're going to work together in some face-saving way. But I don't think the IPO's ever going to happen, and the company will probably be broken up.
INSKEEP: Duncan Clark, thanks so much. Pleasure talking with you.
CLARK: Thank you. My pleasure.
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