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.
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Many companies made changes to survive the pandemic. For tech companies, the changes were also about seizing opportunities to thrive as life abruptly moved online. Few companies have juggled these risks and rewards in as many industries, across as many countries, as Prosus, an Amsterdam-based conglomerate that in 2019 was spun out of Naspers, the South African tech and media giant.
Prosus’ holdings run from e-commerce and classifieds to food delivery, fintech and more. The group is valued at around $180 billion, which makes it one of continental Europe’s 10 largest companies. It operates in more than 80 countries and owns sizable stakes in the internet giants Tencent of China and Mail.ru of Russia. The companies that Prosus controls employ around 20,000 people, and many more work as contractors or at companies in which Prosus holds smaller stakes.
Uber, DoorDash and others. But Prosus companies like Delivery Hero and iFood took steps to help preserve long-term good will with its partners at the expense of short-term profits. In Brazil, for example, “we paid restaurants much quicker than we usually did,” Mr. van Dijk said. “From a cash-flow point of view, that was actually pretty important” in keeping restaurants in their good graces, reducing potential tensions between restaurants struggling during the pandemic and online delivery apps seeing demand soar.
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It was a similar story in India for classifieds. “We reduced fees substantially, or we waived fees,” he said. “That allowed people to preserve cash. When things started to come back again, there was a lot of appreciation around that.”
digital services taxes throughout Europe, meant to collect more revenue from multinational companies that do extensive business in countries without much of a physical presence within their borders. Those wouldn’t apply to Prosus, Mr. van Dijk said — “we invest locally and pay taxes” — but he added that the charges could erode the industry’s profit margins.
“I understand where it comes from,” he said, but “sometimes the regulation is a little blunt.”
What could hurt Prosus, Mr. van Dijk said, are changes to the gig economy, particularly efforts to entitle delivery drivers to worker benefits. Some drivers prefer the flexibility of being contractors, he said, and “we try to pay people properly regardless of what the legislation is.” As far as he could recall, Prosus has never lobbied against classifying workers as employees, as rivals like Uber have.
Another area to watch is China, which has moved to rein in some of its homegrown internet behemoths. Though officials have focused largely on Alibaba, Tencent hasn’t escaped their gaze: The company, which Prosus bought into back in 2001, was among those fined last month for violating antitrust rules. It is Prosus’ single biggest investment, and a tougher crackdown could batter the conglomerate’s market value.
Despite the stakes, Mr. van Dijk downplayed the threat. “Our impression is that China is still very supportive of its tech giants,” he said.
Adevinta of Norway for $9.2 billion. That defeat followed a losing effort to acquire the restaurant delivery company Just Eat, which Takeaway.com bought for $7.8 billion.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. van Dijk said Prosus hadn’t encountered much competition from special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, which have raised nearly $100 billion this year and are very active acquirers of tech companies. This may be in part because SPACs are largely a U.S. phenomenon, although other countries have been trying to court the blank-check firms.
Mr. van Dijk said Prosus might eventually find itself competing with SPACs, particularly for later-stage private companies. In the meantime, Prosus itself invested $500 million in a SPAC last year when the shell company merged with Skillsoft, an education technology firm.
Lately, Prosus has mostly been investing in its existing businesses. “Putting money into there is still a good idea,” Mr. van Dijk said. And a few months ago the company announced that it would buy back $5 billion of its shares.
Things are looking slightly more measured these days, Mr. van Dijk said, with valuations coming down “to much more sustainable levels.” For a serial dealmaker, that means opportunity: “It’s easier to do acquisitions in a market that is cooling off.”