Speculation swirls about Jack Ma's whereabouts after he skips appearance on TV show he created

Mr Jack Ma has not been seen in public since Chinese regulators torpedoed Ant’s US$35 billion IPO. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Billionaire Ant Group co-founder Jack Ma skipped a recent taping of an African TV programme he created, spurring speculation online about his whereabouts and the outcome of an investigation into his Internet empire.

Mr Ma has not been seen in public since Chinese regulators torpedoed Ant's US$35 billion (S$46.1 billion) initial public offering in November, then tightened fintech regulations and launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba Group Holding - all in a span of days.

The Financial Times last Friday (Jan 1) reported that the show runners of the Shark Tank-like Africa's Business Heroes programme replaced him as a judge in a November telecast and removed his photo from the show's website around the same time Mr Ma delivered his now-infamous rebuke of the "pawnshop" mentalities of government overseers.

The flamboyant Mr Ma - long a fixture on the international conference circuit - all but vanished from public view thereafter.

As at early December, the man most closely identified with the meteoric rise of China Inc was advised by the government to stay in the country, a person familiar with the matter has said. An Alibaba spokesman said Mr Ma couldn't attend due to scheduling conflicts, declining to comment specifically on the executive's whereabouts.

Mr Ma may have his hands full dealing with escalating scrutiny. The crackdown on his companies has set in motion a string of regulatory decrees that threaten to reshape the landscape for China's online operators.

Regulators are now studying plans to force Ant to divest equity investments in some financial companies, curbing the company's influence over the sector, a person familiar with the matter has said.

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