Jack Ma’s absence is stirring uneasy memories of a series of disappeared Chinese tycoons

Where are you, Jack?
Where are you, Jack?
Image: Reuters
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Where is Jack Ma?

That is the question weighing more heavily than any other on the minds of China-focused financial journalists, analysts, and investors.

It has been two months since the flamboyant founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba vanished from public view, after he drew the ire of Beijing for giving a daring speech in which he criticized Chinese financial regulators for stifling innovation. Soon after those remarks, Beijing suspended the $37 billion IPO of Ma’s fintech empire Ant Group planned for November, a decision that was said to be made by Chinese president Xi Jinping. The tech mogul has not since appeared at any public events or given any speeches, and was even replaced as a judge in a game show he helped create to promote African entrepreneurs. (Alibaba said the replacement was due to “a scheduling conflict.”)

Because such absences in China have often culminated in arrests and prosecutions, rumors are running rampant about Ma’s status. When CNBC reported yesterday (Jan. 5) that the tycoon is just “lying low,” citing a source close to the situation, it immediately buoyed investor sentiment, and shares in Alibaba jumped around 5%.

While it is unclear what Ma’s real situation is, his absence is raising uneasy memories about other Chinese tycoons and celebrities who vanished from the public eye before. While it isn’t possible to assume that Ma, one of the country’s most admired tech founders and richest men, has met a similar fate, it’s worth remembering that in China, disappearing isn’t something that only happens to dissidents.

In an opaque political system, even the rich and powerful can find their fortunes change seemingly overnight.

Wu Xiaohui, former chairman of Anbang Insurance Group

Chairman of Anbang Insurance Group Wu Xiaohui attends the China Development Forum in Beijing, China
Had it all, and then he didn’t.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter

At the peak of his career, Wu (shown above) was dining at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, which Anbang then owned, with the US president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in November 2016. Just months later, in June 2017, the businessman went on a mysterious leave of absence, with his company issuing a statement saying that he “is currently unable to fulfill his role for personal reasons.” The disappearance happened after reports from Chinese outlet Caijing that said Wu was detained after Chinese financial authorities had become increasingly worried about private companies’ excessive acquisitions overseas.

Around nine months after Wu’s disappearance, a trial against him quietly started in March 2018, and he was sentenced to 18 years in prison in May that year for financial fraud and abuse of power.

Once one of the largest insurers in China, Anbang was taken over by China’s insurance regulator after Wu fell from grace in 2018. Last September, Anbang applied to the regulator to liquidate the company.

Despite their earlier prominence, Wu’s family could apparently rely on little help from their connections—the fallen tycoon’s mother at one point pleaded for help on Twitter, saying she had had no access to her son over the past two years.

Ren Zhiqiang, former chairman of Huayuan property conglomerate

The property mogul, who has long been known for his outspokenness on social issues, vanished from public sight in March. Many at the time attributed his disappearance to his bold criticism of the government’s cover-up of information about Covid-19, and his oblique reference to Xi as “a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor” in an essay. In June, Ren was expelled from the Communist Party as a member as he “seriously violated the Party’s political, organizational, integrity, work and life disciplines.”

In September, a court in Beijing sentenced the 69-year-old to 18 years in jail for charges that included taking bribes and abuse of power.

Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun International

Guo Guangchang
Guo Guangchang, Chairman of Fosun Group.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip

Dubbed “China’s Warren Buffet” due to his impressive deal-making ability in several sectors, billionaire Guo went missing briefly in December 2015. Guo was “assisting in certain investigations” by the Chinese authorities, the group’s Shanghai-listed subsidiaries said at the time. Guo reappeared at his group’s annual meeting in Shanghai on Dec. 14 that year, days after his mysterious absence. A company executive said the investigation was about Guo’s personal affairs, instead of company business.

Although Guo and his company have since appeared to have avoided any further scrutiny of the authorities, Fosun in 2017 had to issue a statement to quash online rumors that said Guo went missing again, probably because unnerved investors were still recovering from the shock from his short absence two years ago.

Xiao Jianhua, the founder of Tomorrow Group

Xiao’s disappearance sounds like the plotline from a Hollywood spy movie: he was whisked out of Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel in January 2017 in a wheelchair by several men, and he later vanished completely from the public sight, with no official word on his whereabouts. The speculation at the time was that the tycoon, who had amassed stakes in companies ranging from banking to rare metals under Tomorrow Group, had become so powerful that Chinese leaders worried about systematic financial risks felt the need to step in.

The company confirmed for the first time in a statement (link in Chinese) in July last year that the tycoon was in mainland China, and was cooperating with authorities, which plans to restructure the group. In the statement, the group also lashed out at Chinese regulators’ earlier announcements that they would take over nine companies under Tomorrow Group, saying the government exaggerated the risks of the entities to push through the takeovers. The strongly-worded criticism, published on the company’s WeChat account, was quickly removed later.

Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most famous movie stars

71st Cannes Film Festival - Screening of the film "Ash Is Purest White" (Jiang hu er nv) in competition - Red Carpet Arrivals - Cannes, France, May 11, 2018. Fan Bingbing poses.
Fan Bingbing, a super movie star in China.
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

As one of the most powerful names in China’s entertainment industry, Fan is not only among the highest-paid actresses in China, but also one of the few to feature in international productions like the Iron Man and X-Men franchises.

But Fan’s career came to an abrupt halt in 2018. After being accused of tax evasion by Chinese TV presenter Cui Yongyuan in May, Fan went missing in July, and Chinese censors removed reports and posts asking about  Fan’s whereabouts. In October, Fan resurfaced with a post apologizing for breaking tax laws on her social media account, while news also broke that she had been fined almost $130 million by authorities for the offense, although no criminal charges were pressed against her.

In April 2019, Fan finally reappeared at a public event, at a corporate gala in Beijing.