Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant Ma co-founded, saw its Hong Kong-listed shares plummet as much as 9.4% on Tuesday after Chinese state media reported that a person with the surname “Ma” in the city of Hangzhou – where Alibaba is based – had been remanded in custody due to national security.
According to China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the suspect was placed under “mandatory measures” on April 25, suspected of “collaborating with enemy overseas forces against China” to “encourage secession” and “encourage undermining state power”.
The one-sentence report, which was quickly picked up by other state media and reported on Chinese news platforms, triggered panic sales in Hong Kong, wiping out an estimated $ 26 billion from Alibaba̵[ads1]7;s market value in minutes.
To further allay concerns, the Global Times reported that the accused man was born in 1985 in Wenzhou (while Jack Ma was born in 1964 in Hangzhou) and worked as a director of hardware research and development at an IT company.
The clarifications led to a recovery, with Alibaba recovering the majority of its losses by the end of the day.
The market’s roller coaster reaction is the latest sign of how dirty investors are coming across China’s difficult technology sector, which has been a target for the Chinese government’s tough regulatory downturn since the end of 2020.
“I thought this was a strange episode,” said Victor Shih, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego. “Whether it was some kind of warning to the technology sector as a whole, or maybe Jack Ma personally. Who knows? But it’s certainly shown that the government does not even need to arrest a senior technology leader to erase tens of billions of dollars from a company’s market value. to release some kind of information, “Shih added.
“It’s pretty powerful. And certainly what happened yesterday was a clear illustration of that power, whether it was delivered or not.”
But the fact that investors were so quick to believe that Jack Ma, once China’s most high-profile billionaire, would clash with state security authorities reveals some of the political reality many Chinese tycoons now live in.
The turn in public sentiment towards Ma is almost as spectacular as his story of rags to riches. Until about three years ago, the English teacher who became a billionaire was much worshiped for his charisma, outspoken and self-made success. (He even got the nickname “Daddy Ma” from some fans).
As the technology giants fell under the Chinese government’s crosshairs, “evil capitalists” have increasingly been blamed for various social diseases, from relentless competition, sky-high real estate prices to lack of social mobility.
“But the question is, will bringing down capitalists and driving out (so-called) foreign forces really make everyone’s lives better?”
Jack Ma has largely disappeared from public life and kept a low profile since Ant Group’s IPO in the US was stopped by regulators in late 2020. Once among the most outspoken figures in China, he has not posted anything on Weibo, where he has almost 25 million followers since October 2020.
“I will not be surprised if old Ma is imprisoned one day,” it reads in the top commentary. “You’re just a capitalist! Do not pretend to be a good person!” another comment screamed.
Jack Ma remained silent throughout Tuesday, with rumors circulating on the Chinese Internet. Hashtags about the detention of the suspect with the surname Ma were among the most popular topics on Weibo, and drew hundreds of millions of views.
This kind of silence is of profound importance. For a public figure, his speech is in itself an “extension” of his existence. When a person no longer speaks, even though he is still alive, he still does things, at least part of him has “disappeared”.