SHANGHAI—Business and politics are inextricably linked in communist China. Jack Ma, the head of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and China’s best-known capitalist, is a Communist Party member, the official Party newspaper said on Nov. 26.
The People’s Daily revealed Ma’s Party membership in a list of 100 people it said had helped drive the country “reform and opening up” process. Ma is China’s richest man with a fortune of $35.8 billion, according to Forbes.
It was unclear why the paper chose to mention Ma’s affiliation now but it comes amid a push by Beijing to bring the country’s private enterprises more in line with Party values, especially in the technology sector that has grown rapidly, driven by the successes of private firms.
Ma, who announced in September he would step down as Alibaba chairman next year, is China’s highest-profile business leader. He has acted as an adviser to political leaders in Asia and Europe and fostered big ambitions in the United States.
He has driven Alibaba to become a $390 billion giant, which dominates China’s online retail market, stretches from logistics to social media, and has spawned a separate fintech empire around popular payment platform Alipay.
Ma’s political affiliation came as a surprise to many.
Results from domestic search engine Baidu Inc, when asked “is Jack Ma a Communist Party member,” also mostly said that he was not.
Teng Biao, U.S.-based Chinese human rights lawyer, told Radio Free Asia on Nov. 27 that Ma’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was an open secret. Without the support of the CCP, it would have been impossible for Ma to accumulate such wealth, he said.
Teng believes the CCP wants Ma to undertake more political tasks after he steps down from Alibaba.
Alibaba declined to comment on Ma’s Party membership.
The People’s Daily list also included Baidu head Robin Li and Tencent Holding Ltd chief Pony Ma, though did not name either of them as Party members. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent together make up the “BAT” trio of China’s top tech firms.
The paper did not say when Ma had become a Party member.
According to a survey, one-third of China’s private entrepreneurs are CCP members, said Kellee Tsai, dean of humanities and social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, reported the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 26.
Having a Party membership and friendly ties with the Party elite helps businessmen secure top projects and investment in China’s hugely competitive business environment.
In turn, the Party co-opts these businessmen into their political meetings and events to give a sign of inclusiveness. For instance, Jack Ma was part of the group of Chinese businessmen who accompanied Party leader Xi Jinping on his first formal state visit to the United States.
A July 2014 article by the New York Times found that four Chinese companies investing in Alibaba are helmed by either the sons or grandsons of former top Party officials.
Alibaba, however, was chastised by Chinese authorities in January 2015 for selling counterfeit goods and other violations. The attack on Ma’s company was viewed in some quarters as spillover from a fierce Party factional struggle. Alvin Jiang Zhicheng, grandson of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, has a 5.6 percent stake in Alibaba. Jiang, his family, and associates are the primary targets in current Party leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
The Epoch Times contributed to this report.