Jack Ma returns to China in sign of political easing on Alibaba

Alibaba founder Jack Ma has returned to mainland China in a rare public visit that comes as Beijing tries to restore confidence in the entrepreneurial class after a years-long crackdown on the tech sector.

Ma travelled to his hometown of Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, to visit the Alibaba-funded Yungu School, according to the school, which mostly educates Alibaba employees’ children.

In an article posted on its WeChat account on Monday, the school quoted Ma talking about the challenges artificial intelligence poses to education. The former English teacher and educational philanthropist discussed the need for educational reform if children were to compete with artificial intelligence in the future.

Beijing will hope the publicity around Ma’s rare trip to mainland China can reinvigorate confidence for entrepreneurs after the end of both a bruising regulatory crackdown and zero-Covid restrictions.

The detention of China Renaissance founder Bao Fan in recent weeks has sent jitters through the business world just as Beijing is trying to promote investment in the country.

Billionaire Ma was once a high-profile figure in China, giving freewheeling interviews to the media and taking to the stage in flamboyant dress and performing rock music at company galas.

Just days before the blockbuster $37bn initial public offering of fintech group Ant Financial in November 2020, Ma gave a speech in which he attacked China’s financial watchdogs and banks. The speech led President Xi Jinping to force the abandonment of Ant’s listing and triggered a crackdown on the country’s largest tech groups.

Since then, Ma has shied away from media attention and increasingly spent his time outside China.

The Financial Times reported that Ma had been living in Tokyo for almost six months in November, conducting regular trips to the US and Israel. Ma has also spent time in Hong Kong in recent months, playing golf, according to people familiar with his activities.

Government officials in Zhejiang province, home to Hangzhou, have stepped up their charm offensive with Alibaba, dispatching top local Communist Party cadres to the company’s headquarters and signing a strategic co-operation agreement.

Ma’s return to mainland China comes as the future of Ant Financial remains unclear. The billionaire relinquished control of Ant Group in January, vastly reducing his stake in the company. A change in control could pave the way for a listing in Hong Kong or Shanghai.

Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Hong Kong

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