Alibaba’s Ma Makes First Public Appearance in 3 Months

January 20, 2021 Updated: January 20, 2021

SHANGHAI—Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma made his first public appearance since October 2020 on Jan. 20, speaking to a group of teachers by video, and easing concern about his unusual absence from the limelight and sending shares in the e-commerce giant surging.

Speculation over Ma’s whereabouts has swirled in the wake of news this month that he was replaced as a judge in the final episode of a reality TV show, and amid a regulatory clampdown by Beijing on his sprawling business empire.

The billionaire, who commands a cult-like reverence in China, hadn’t appeared in public since Oct. 24, 2020, when he blasted China’s regulatory system in a speech at a Shanghai forum. That set him on a collision course with officials and led to the suspension of a blockbuster $37 billion IPO for Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Group.

Until then, Ma had often appeared in public, speaking at conferences and other events, although less frequently than in 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Alibaba and his charitable foundation both confirmed that Ma, a former English teacher, participated in an online ceremony for rural teachers organized by the foundation on Jan. 20. They declined to provide further comment.

In the 50-second video, Ma, wearing a navy pullover, spoke from a room with grey walls, a large painting, and floral arrangements. It wasn’t clear where the room was.

“It was good to see that Jack Ma has resurfaced—my assumption was that he decided (with some encouragement) to take a temporarily lower profile after making comments that annoyed the government,” said Dan Kern, chief investment officer of Alibaba investor TFC Financial Management in Boston, whose funds hold positions in the stock.

Jack Ma
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group, gestures during a panel session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 23, 2019. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Alibaba’s Hong Kong-listed shares jumped to finish 8.5 percent higher on the news, which was first reported by Tianmu News, a media outlet backed by the government of Zhejiang, the province where Alibaba’s headquarters are based. The company’s American Depositary Receipts (ADRs) rose nearly 5 percent.

The video also contained footage, dated Jan. 10, of Ma visiting with colleagues a school in Tonglu county, part of Hangzhou city, the capital of Zhejiang.

“Jack Ma’s reappearance has given investors peace of mind after a lot of rumors, allowing them to pile into the stock which had been a laggard in the market,” said Steven Leung, sales director at brokerage UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong.

The stock has erased losses suffered after Alibaba became the target of an antitrust investigation launched last month by Chinese authorities, but remains some 11 percent below levels prior to the cancellation of the Ant IPO.

The topic “Jack Ma makes his first public appearance” and his video address to the teachers soon began trending on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, triggering heavy discussion.

Although Ma has stepped down from corporate positions and earnings calls, he retains significant influence over Alibaba and Ant, and promotes them globally at business and political events. He also continues to mentor management talent in the “Alibaba Partnership,” a 35-member group of company managers.

The company plans to raise at least $5 billion through the sale of a U.S. dollar-denominated bond this month.

By Brenda Goh