Why is the Chinese government going after Jack Ma, the country’s richest man?

Jack Ma’s Alibaba empire has become too big and influential during a period of rising wealth inequality in China.


December 28, 2020

For the past 2 decades, being a Chinese billionaire has been a dangerous job. Whether it was a short life expectancy or threat of arrest for corruption, being uber-rich in China has not ended well for many.

Jack Ma — the 56-year-old founder of Alibaba and China’s richest man (worth $57B+, but frequently swapping the top spot with Tencent’s Pony Ma) — has mostly avoided a bad outcome…

… until this year

As reported by the New York Times, the Chinese government has been clamping down on Ma:

  • In November, it held up the listing of Alibaba’s fintech arm Ant Group, which was supposed to raise $34.5B, the biggest IPO ever. The cancellation came after Ma criticized the country’s financial regulators for stifling innovation and called China’s bank “pawnshops.”
  • Last week, China launched an antitrust investigation into Alibaba itself, charging that the ecommerce giant forces merchants to sell exclusively on its platform.

Ma is perhaps China’s greatest entrepreneurial success story

Born in Hangzhou, China, Ma spent his youth learning English by spending time around tourists before studying the language in college.

Ma learned about the internet on a 1995 trip to the US. Upon his return to China, he launched numerous websites before co-founding Alibaba with 18 friends in 1999.

Today, Alibaba Group — which includes ecommerce leaders Taobao and Tmall — does $70B+ in annual revenue and is the “closest thing Amazon has to a peer and rival,” writes the NYT.

The diminutive tech titan has happily cultivated a superstar persona, even starring as a kung fu master in a short film.

Why is the crackdown happening now? 

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese state has imposed a tighter grip over the economy, which puts Alibaba and its rival Tencent — both worth $600B+ — squarely in the crosshairs.

The clampdowns also come at a time of rising economic inequality: China has more billionaires than India and the US combined but also has 600m citizens earning less than $150 a month, per the NYT.

Jack Ma is becoming the posterboy for this wealth gap — perhaps the only job in China that’s more dangerous than “billionaire.”

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