Jack Ma emerges in public for first time since crackdown on Ant, Alibaba

Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma met 100 rural teachers in China via a live video meeting on Wednesday morning, in the businessman's first appearance since October.

SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Alibaba and Ant co-founder Jack Ma has resurfaced after months out of public view, quashing intense speculation about the plight of the billionaire grappling with escalating scrutiny over his Internet empire.

China's most recognisable entrepreneur addressed scores of teachers on an online conference on Wednesday (Jan 20), part of an annual event the billionaire hosts to recognise the achievements of rural educators.

Tianmu News, a news portal under Zhejiang Online, a government-backed news website, on Wednesday reported the meeting where Mr Ma met 100 rural teachers.

The Jack Ma Foundation said that Mr Ma participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event on Wednesday. Alibaba Group also confirmed that Mr Ma attended the online event.  

In the 50-second video, Mr Ma, dressed in a navy pullover, spoke directly to the camera from a room with grey marble walls and a striped carpet. It was not clear from the video or the Tianmu News article where he was speaking from.  

He addressed teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, who in previous years would have attended a ceremony organised by the Jack Ma Foundation in the Chinese seaside city of Sanya.  

“We cannot meet in Sanya due to the epidemic,” he said in the speech, which did not discuss his whereabouts. “When the epidemic is over, we must find time to make up for everyone’s trip to Sanya, and then we will meet again!”

Mr Ma's re-emergence may help quell persistent rumours about his fate while Beijing pursues investigations into online finance titan Ant Group Co and Alibaba Group Holding.

The executive had kept out of public view since early November, when Chinese regulators torpedoed Ant's US$35 billion (S$46.5 billion) initial public offering, tightened fintech regulations, then ordered an overhaul of Ant and launched a separate antitrust probe into Alibaba - all in a span of days.

The assault on Mr Ma's trillion-dollar corporate empire encapsulates a broader campaign to rein in a generation of Chinese tech giants that Beijing now views as wielding too much control over the world's No. 2 economy.

The flurry of actions against his twin companies drove home how Beijing has lost patience with the outsize power of its technology moguls, perceived now as a threat to the political and financial stability President Xi Jinping prizes most.