Two years before Jack Ma disappeared from the public eye, a journalist asked Chinese billionaire and exile Miles Kwok what would happen to Ma in case he resigned from his e-commerce emporium, Alibaba, because of his alleged differences with the Chinese regime. Kwok claimed that only two paths awaited Ma in China: jail or death.
Although Ma has resurfaced, his “leave of absence” leaves many questions, as he disappeared completely after a controversial speech in which the billionaire criticized the current practices of China’s financial system and the “pawnshop” mentality of China’s central bank.
Following the controversy with Ma, China blocked, in November, the IPO on the Shanghai stock exchange of Alibaba’s financial startup, Ant Group Co. The startup is the owner of Alipay, the largest online payment platform in the country, with more than 1.3 billion users. Ant Group’s IPO was set to break records in the amount of funds raised by a company, more than $34 billion. In November Ant Group’s market capitalization was more than $300 billion, well above that of the world’s largest banks.
On Wednesday The Wall Street Journal revealed that Ant Group would submit restructuring plans to Chinese regulators and become a financial holding company supervised by China’s central bank. Ant Group’s restructuring plans are expected to be ready by mid-February, ahead of the Chinese New Year vacation.
Jack Ma isn’t the first billionaire to disappear completely in China
Ma is not the only billionaire who has completely disappeared from the public eye for a while and has had to announce reforms in his companies to survive the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party. On December 15, 2015, China’s so-called ‘Warren Buffet,’ Guo Guangchang, founder of Chinese investment fund Fosun International, disappeared, last seen at Shanghai airport.
The Fosun investment fund is an emporium with more than $102 billion in assets across Asia, Europe and North America, including Chinese pharmaceutical companies, Portugal’s largest insurance company and several German banks. After Guo’s arrest, Fosun suspended its stock market trading, and announced that Guo was assisting authorities in an investigation.
Fosun’s founder had been linked to a corruption case by the Xi Jingping government. Shortly after, Guo returned to his position as the company’s manager and never commented on his disappearance, nor on the nature of his cooperation with the authorities. Guo at the time of his arrest was the 17th richest man in China; today, he remains number 50.
Almost a month after Guo Guangchang’s disappearance, on January 7, 2016, China’s fashion czar Zhou Chengjian was arrested by police on charges of alleged insider stock price manipulation. Ten days later, Zhou reappeared and to date, he hasn’t commented on his days of absence.
Although Zhuo and Guo remain alive and in control of their companies, this is not the fate of all billionaires who cross Xi Jingping’s path. Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese billionaire with ties to the Xi family, was last seen on December 27th in Hong Kong being taken from his apartment in the Four Seasons Hotel in a wheelchair with his face covered by five Chinese officials. Xiao was never seen using a wheelchair before.
According to Hong Kong police, Xiao was taken to Chinese territory. Xiao’s removal from Hong Kong apparently goes against established rules with China. So far, Xiao hasn’t been seen again and his assets were expropriated by the Chinese government.
In March 2020, the real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang published an online essay with strong criticism of the Communist regime, stating that: “when ignorant and shameless people try to resign themselves to the stupidity of the great leader (Xi Jingpin), the society becomes a mob that is difficult to develop and sustain.”
In addition to denigrating Xi Jingpin’s intelligence, Ren also discusses how China’s lack of freedom of speech caused the pandemic to break out, stating, “If there were freedom of speech, citizens would have taken active measures to protect themselves. If they had known the truth from the beginning, such a massive loss of control and spread would have been prevented.”
On March 12, 2020 Ren disappeared for 7 months, only to reappear in September 2020 to be sentenced to 18 years in prison on “corruption” charges for allegedly taking bribes and abusing his market position. According to Chinese authorities, Ren confessed to his crimes “voluntarily” and “honestly”. Ren’s assets were confiscated and he was fined 4.2 million yuan.
How China maintains its regime of terror among its billionaires
Like hundreds of journalists, academics and intellectuals, millionaires and billionaires in China are a population strictly monitored by the government, as their opinions can generate unrest and discontent around the population.
Since the opening up of trade in the 1990s, capitalism in China has been highly monitored and regulated by the Communist Party, through corrupt regulators, as well as by holding stakes in the country’s largest corporations, or with the help of co-opted judges.
The problem with the capitalist model is that it’s incompatible without the freedom of circulation of ideas, which has resulted in a wave of “dissidents” in the Chinese business sector; a wave that Xi Jingpin, since coming to power, has decided to quell. Many businessmen have opted to leave China, due to the high risk of being a rich man in a country where capitalism is co-opted by the political apparatus of a single party.
Xi maintains a government system of favors, with friendly courts, convenient regulators, and public money on hand for those businessmen who remain silent and prostrate themselves as friends of the regime. For dissidents, who prefer to speak out and voice their opinions, with Xi’s regime only exile, jail, or death awaits.