Jack Ma, the founder of tech giant Alibaba, has made a rare public appearance in China, potentially signalling government efforts to quell concerns in the country’s tech sector after a bruising two-year regulatory crackdown.
China’s best-known entrepreneur has kept a low profile since late 2020 when a speech he made attacking Chinese regulators was followed by Beijing pulling Alibaba affiliate Ant Group’s planned initial public offering. A record fine of $2.75bn was then imposed on the company for alleged unfair practices.
Ma has been spotted around the world over the past two years and was reportedly living in Japan for much of 2022.
He returned to China last week, said two sources with knowledge of the matter who were quoted by the Reuters news agency. It was not clear how long he plans to stay in China.
On Monday, he visited a school founded by Alibaba partners in the eastern city of Hangzhou, according to a post on the school’s official social media account.
Ma, a former English teacher, met staff and toured classrooms before talking about the challenges artificial intelligence (AI) might pose to education.
“ChatGPT and similar technologies are just the beginning of the AI era,” the post quoted Ma as saying. “We should use artificial intelligence to solve problems instead of being controlled by it.”
Ma was one of the most high-profile targets of a crackdown by officials on alleged anti-competitive practices by some of China’s biggest names in tech, driven by fears that major internet firms controlled too much data and had expanded too quickly.
Ant Group said in January that Ma had ceded control of the fintech company, adjusting its ownership structure so “no shareholder, alone or jointly with other parties, will have control over Ant Group.”
In a sign that the official grip may now be loosening, authorities said in December that Ant had won approval to raise 10.5 billion yuan ($1.5bn) for its consumer finance arm.
Analysts said Ma’s public re-emergence provides support for the government’s softening tone towards the private sector as leaders try to shore up an economy battered by three years of COVID-19 restrictions.
Ma’s return “boosts the sentiment of the broader platform and internet industry”, Zhang Zihua, chief investment officer at Beijing Yunyi Asset Management, told Reuters.
“Because that means the new top leadership has indeed been re-examining the position and the importance of the platform companies in China’s economic development.”
“The previous restrictive policies on the platform and internet sector are also expected to be adjusted,” Zhang added.
Alibaba shares jumped more than 4 percent after news of Ma’s return to China before giving up some of the gains, Al Jazeera reports.
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