Jack Ma spotted playing golf, easing China detention fears

BEIJING • For months, speculation over Mr Jack Ma’s whereabouts has run rampant. Maybe the embattled billionaire had fled to Singapore, some posited. Or he had been placed under house arrest. Or worse yet, he was locked up in a high-security jail.

As it turns out, China’s most talked-about tycoon has been working on his golf game.

The co-founder of Ant Group and Alibaba Group Holding was seen teeing off in recent weeks at the Sun Valley Golf Resort, a secluded 27-hole course on the Chinese island of Hainan, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified. Located near the island’s southern tip, the course offers expansive greens and stunning views.

It is the first known sighting of Mr Ma since the former English teacher joined a live-streamed video chat with rural educators on Jan 20. While that appearance helped quiet talk of Mr Ma’s detention, speculation about his standing with China’s Communist Party has continued to swirl as the authorities clamp down on his sprawling business empire.

Mr Ma’s golf outing adds to recent evidence that the outspoken entrepreneur has – for now at least – avoided nightmare scenarios like prison time or a government seizure of his assets.

Ant, for instance, has reached an agreement with the Chinese authorities on a restructuring plan that could be officially announced as soon as this week, Bloomberg reported on Feb 3, citing people familiar with the matter. The deal is a first step on what could be a long path back to a revival of the fintech behemoth’s initial public offering (IPO), which was halted by regulators in November just days before Ant was due to start trading in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Another positive clue emerged earlier this week from SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son, a longtime friend of Mr Ma’s who was among the earliest investors in Alibaba. Mr Son said during SoftBank’s quarterly earnings presentation on Monday that he has stayed in touch with Mr Ma. Without commenting on the Chinese billionaire’s whereabouts, Mr Son said Mr Ma likes to draw and has been sharing his sketches via chat.

Representatives for Alibaba, Ant and the Sun Valley Golf Resort declined to comment.

Before the implosion of Ant’s IPO, Mr Ma’s appearance on a golf course would have attracted little if any attention. The 56-year-old entrepreneur has been steadily relinquishing day-to-day oversight of his businesses in recent years, stepping down as executive chairman of Alibaba in September 2019.

But even in semi-retirement, Mr Ma has rarely stayed out of public view for as long as he did after his now-infamous critique of Chinese financial regulators in October. Within weeks of his speech at the Bund Summit in Shanghai, the authorities scuttled Ant’s listing, called for an overhaul of the company and started an antitrust probe of Alibaba.

Mr Ma’s extended absence during the crackdown sent China’s rumour mill into overdrive, with some observers drawing parallels to the case of Mr Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once the richest man in Russia, the Yukos Oil boss spent about a decade in prison on fraud and tax-evasion charges that he said were retribution for challenging the authority of President Vladimir Putin.

Given the opacity of President Xi Jinping’s Communist Party, it is difficult to assess the endgame for Mr Ma. He was conspicuously absent from a list of Chinese technology luminaries published by state media last week.

For chief strategist Hao Hong at Bocom International in Hong Kong, the most likely explanation is that Mr Ma is simply laying low as his firms sort through their issues with regulators.

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