Jack Ma, the most famous businessman China has ever produced, is avoiding the spotlight. Friends say he is painting and practicing tai chi. Sometimes, he shares drawings with Masayoshi Son, the billionaire head of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
The wider world glimpsed Mr. Ma for the first time in months last week, during a virtual board meeting of the Russian Geographical Society. As President Vladimir V. Putin and others discussed Arctic affairs and leopard conservation, Mr. Ma could be seen resting his head on one hand, looking deeply bored.
For Mr. Ma — the charismatic entrepreneur who first showed, two decades ago, how China would shake the world in the internet age; whose face adorns shelves of admiring business books; who never met a crowd he couldn’t razzle-dazzle — it is a stark change of pace.
Beijing’s biggest targets yet, as officials start regulating the country’s powerful internet industry like never before.
snatched from a luxury Hong Kong hotel in 2017. Ye Jianming, an oil tycoon who sought connections in Washington, was detained, as was Wu Xiaohui, whose insurance company bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Mr. Wu later went to prison. Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of a financial firm, was executed this year.
“The general iron rule is that there should be no individual centers of power outside of the party,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
Beijing’s clampdown on tech is already rippling through boardrooms beyond Alibaba’s.
Ant Group’s chief executive, Simon Hu, resigned in March. A few days later, Colin Huang stepped down as chairman of Pinduoduo, the mobile bazaar he founded and took public within a few short years. Pinduoduo announced his resignation the same day it said it had attracted 788 million shoppers over the previous 12 months — a bigger number than Alibaba.
proposed tougher rules for internet companies — or, as an official newspaper put it, “innovative methods of regulation and governance.”
China’s antitrust authority summoned 34 top internet companies to talk about new fair-competition rules. Within hours, they were discussing business changes and publicly pledging to stay in line.
“These new regulations are going to require internet platforms to look at how they innovate going forward, and the result is potentially less innovation,” said Gordon Orr, a nonexecutive board member at Meituan, the Chinese food delivery giant.
Even so, Alibaba and other internet titans have a status in China that could protect them from the most heavy-handed treatment. Officials have praised the titans’ economic contributions even as they tighten supervision. Mr. Xi wants China’s economy to be driven more by its own innovations than by those of fickle foreign powers.
That means it might be too soon to declare Jack Ma down for the count.
“His company is much more important to the success and functioning of the Chinese economy than any of the other entrepreneurs’,” Mr. McGregor said. “The government wants to continue to reap the benefits of his company — but on their terms. The government isn’t nationalizing Alibaba. It isn’t confiscating its assets. It’s simply narrowing the field in which it operates.”
Alibaba declined to comment.
Mr. Ma is no neophyte at dealing with the authorities in China.
He worked briefly and unhappily at a government-run advertising agency before founding Alibaba in 1999. At the time, China was still getting used to the idea of powerful private entrepreneurs, and Mr. Ma proved adept at charming government officials.
in the 2000s. “What a world-class company needs most is a soul, a commander, a world-class businessman. Jack Ma, I believe, meets this standard.”
Mr. Ma saw early on what success might bring with it in China, said Porter Erisman, an early Alibaba executive.
“There was only one person in the company who brought to our attention that one day we might face issues of being so big that we would come under pressure for having too much market power,” Mr. Erisman said. “And that was Jack.”
one of Alibaba’s biggest investors, Yahoo. Mr. Ma said the move had been necessary under new Chinese regulations. Alipay later became Ant Group.
“The Alipay transfer emboldened him,” said Duncan Clark, who has known Mr. Ma since 1999 and is chairman of BDA China, a consulting firm. “He kind of got away with it.”
work more closely with the state.
When Mr. Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019, a commentary in the official Communist Party newspaper declared: “There is no so-called Jack Ma era — only Jack Ma as part of this era.”
China’s leaders need the private sector to help sustain economic growth. But they also do not want entrepreneurs to undermine the party’s dominance across society.
Last October, as Ant was preparing to go public, Mr. Ma spoke at a Shanghai conference and criticized China’s financial regulators. He had long seen Ant as a vehicle for disrupting the country’s big state-run banks. But there could scarcely have been a less opportune moment to press the point. Officials halted Ant’s share listing soon after.
In China, “it’s hard to say the emperor has no clothes these days,” said Kellee S. Tsai, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Mr. Ma has largely vanished from sight within his companies, too. In January, he popped up in an internal chat group to answer a business question, according to a person who saw the message but was not authorized to speak publicly. Employees later shared Mr. Ma’s message to reassure nervous colleagues.
estimated that Mr. Ma was not, for the first time in three years, one of China’s three richest people. The country’s new No. 1 was Zhong Shanshan, the low-key head of both a bottled-water giant and a pharmaceutical business.
Chinese news reports about his sudden wealth had to explain to readers how to pronounce the obscure Chinese character in his name.
China is having its techlash moment.
The country’s internet giants, once celebrated as engines of economic vitality, are now scorned for exploiting user data, abusing workers and squelching innovation. Jack Ma, co-founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, is a fallen idol, with his companies under government scrutiny for the ways they have secured their grip over the world’s second-largest economy.
But there is one tech figure who has managed to keep the Chinese public in his thrall, whose mix of impish bomb-throwing and captain-of-industry bravado seems tailor-made for this time of dashed dreams and disillusionment: Elon Musk.
“He can fight the establishment and become the richest man on earth — and avoid getting beaten down in the process,” said Jane Zhang, the founder and chief executive of ShellPay, a blockchain company in Shanghai. “He’s everybody’s hope.”
fiery blast — China cannot get enough of Mr. Musk. Tesla’s electric cars are big sellers in the country, and the government’s growing space ambitions have spawned a community of fans who track SpaceX’s every launch.
trailblazer or a fraud, and examining everything from his upbringing to his taste in Beijing hot pot joints. Start-up founders swear by his belief in “first-principles thinking,” which looks for solutions by examining problems at their most fundamental level. A stack of books by Chinese authors promises to reveal the secrets of the “Silicon Valley Iron Man,” which is the nickname that seems to have stuck in China, not King of Mars or Rocket Man.
In a long thread about Mr. Musk on the question-and-answer site Zhihu, a user named Moonshake writes that most people start out full of hope but gradually accept the “mediocrity” that is their fate.
“Only a superman like Musk can move past the endless mediocrity and toward the infinite, to see the magnificence of the universe,” Moonshake writes.
Another user in the same thread says he named his son Elon to express his admiration. The user did not reply to a message seeking further comment.
claimed credit. (Mr. Musk’s reaction to the news — “Well, back to work …” — was liked 22,000 times on the Chinese social platform Weibo.)
Later that month, as Mr. Musk endorsed the run-up in GameStop shares, many in China were riveted, drawn to the drama by the same distrust of big financial institutions.
“Occupy Wall Street could never be copied in China,” said Suji Yan, an entrepreneur and investor in Shanghai. To do that, “you’d have go on the streets,” he said. Buying protest stocks is safer.
embrace of Tesla — and vice versa — when the United States and China have never trusted each other’s high-tech companies less.
marveled at the way Mr. Musk handled the country’s hard-nosed authorities. They have been more critical of the ways he has sometimes treated his own workers. He lashed out last year at California health officials who demanded that a Tesla factory there remain closed out of coronavirus concerns. The company has also come under scrutiny for workplace injuries and racial discrimination.
“He is a real dreamer and creator, yet he is also a coldblooded, self-absorbed megalomaniac,” Hong Bo, a longtime tech commentator in China who writes under the name Keso, said of Mr. Musk. “I admire his courage in breaking with outdated conventions, and yet I intensely dislike his trampling on the bottom lines of humanity.”
Mr. Musk and Tesla did not respond to emails requesting comment.
The frustration with Big Tech is part of a wider malaise in China. For many young people, decades of breakneck economic growth seem to have resulted in only fiercer competition for opportunities, less stability and less say over the direction of their lives.
On the Chinese internet, the term that has captured the mood is “involution,” previously used by anthropologists to describe agrarian societies that grew in size or complexity without becoming more advanced or productive.
The feeling among young Chinese people that they are fighting harder for a slimmer chance at material gain is leading them to hope to “reorganize life in a different way,” said Biao Xiang, who studies social change in China and is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.
later apologized for “excessive self-promotion.” Or Jia Yueting, who set out to best Apple in smartphones and became buried in debt. Even Mr. Ma of Alibaba appears to have helped catalyze the government’s crackdown against him by speaking a little too frankly at an event about his annoyance with regulators.
shared a stage at a Shanghai tech conference in 2019. There may never have been a more mismatched pair. Mr. Ma was earnest and engaged, at ease in the role of conference grandee. Mr. Musk was fidgety and jokey. The two did a great deal of talking right past each other. Mr. Ma said the answer to superintelligent machines was better education for humans. At this, Mr. Musk merely laughed.
In a compilation of awkward moments from the event posted on the video site Bilibili, the comments are brutal, mostly to Mr. Ma.
“This is the person who in China was once looked up to as a god,” one person wrote. “In the presence of a real master, he is like a performing monkey.”
Alibaba declined to comment.