Jack Ma is back.
The outspoken founder of China’s e-commerce and fintech behemoths, Alibaba and Ant Group, has been out of sight for months, since Chinese regulators began cracking down on his internet empire in November, sparking rumors and speculation about his fate.
The billionaire addressed 100 village teachers at an online conference today (Jan. 20), according to Chinese news outlet Tianmu News (link in Chinese), which was confirmed by Jack Ma’s philanthropic foundation. The conference is part of an annual event hosted since 2015 by the tech mogul, a former teacher himself, to reward the contributions made by educators working in rural areas. While the event usually sees Ma give out awards in person, this year’s event was held online due to the pandemic, according to Tianmu.
“After the pandemic is over, we will find a chance to bring you guys to Sanya [city], and I will meet you then,” Ma said in a 50-second video clip released by the outlet, which also published the full transcript of Ma’s speech.
Ma, a regular presence at international conferences like Davos where he’s known for passionate, motivational, and jocular remarks, looked calm, yet serious in the video. Tianmu also released a photo showing Ma sitting in front of a camera for attending the conference, as well as another that shows Ma waving at the teachers with a smile on his face. The outlet did not say where the interview recording was made.
Ant and the foundation didn’t immediately respond to questions from Quartz.
In October last year, Ma 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 Ant’s $37 billion IPO in November, and since then Ma had not appeared at any public events or given any speeches. He was even replaced as a judge in a game show he helped create to promote African entrepreneurs, which Alibaba said was due to “a scheduling conflict.”
Ma’s mysterious absence, which made international headlines, stirred speculation on whether he might meet the same fate as some disappeared Chinese tycoons who later resurfaced in custody to face prosecution and jail time. The regulatory scrutiny and Ma’s unknown whereabouts had worried investors, and shaved billions of dollars off Alibaba’s market cap in recent months. On Wednesday, investors appeared to be greatly reassured, and the stock was up around 9% in trading in Hong Kong as of this writing. It eventually closed up 8.5%, adding around $60 billion to the e-commerce firm’s value.
Ma’s reappearance at a charity event could be a careful calculation to make the mogul look humble and win points with the government, since it’s likely that his earlier high profile and critical remarks played a role in his landing in hot water in China, where the Party has been pushing the private sector to show ever greater loyalty. The Chinese president Xi Jinping, who reportedly personally made the decision to suspend Ant’s IPO, also has repeatedly emphasized the importance of rural education as a way to get rid of poverty, which is one of the leader’s most important policy priorities.
“Recently, my colleagues and I have been studying and thinking, we have further made our determination to devote ourselves to education philanthropy,” said Ma in the speech.
It remains to be seen where else he surfaces in the coming weeks and months. Don’t expect him at virtual Davos though, where China has announced that president Xi Jinping plans to make an address next week, after bypassing the event in recent years.