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For Chinese technology magnate Jack Ma, there is a price for freedom: $ 26 billion.
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 Alibaba’s market value in minutes.
In the midst of the madness, Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the state-owned nationalist tabloid Global Times, hurried to make clear on China’s Twitter-like Weibo that the report was misleading because the name of the suspect in question has three characters. . Jack Ma’s Chinese name, Ma Yun, has only two characters. (CCTV later quietly updated its original report to match House rating).
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.
Despite recent signals from the Chinese government, it is preparing to roll back the campaign due to the economic impact, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, market madness on Tuesday indicates that investor confidence remains unstable.
“I thought this was a bit of a weird episode,” said Victor Shih, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego. “Whether it was a 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 simply came to our notice then. 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.
“It really does not matter anymore if it really is him. The important thing is: many people think it’s him, many expect it to be him, now it’s interesting, “said a popular comment on Weibo, which received 57,000 likes.
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).
But as technology companies like Alibaba expand their business empires, they have become the target of growing frustration and resentment among young Chinese workers who are tired of exhausting long working hours, high pressure and stagnant wages. (Jack Ma’s endorsement of China’s so-called “996” work culture, which means working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, drew intense criticism in 2019.)
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.
“In just a few years, ‘Dad Ma’ has been branded a ‘rotten capitalist’ in public opinion, and many people are looking forward to Ma’s downfall,” Xiang Dongliang, a blogger, wrote on WeChat.
“But the question is, will it really make everyone’s lives better to bring down capitalists and drive out (so-called) foreign forces?”
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.
His latest Weibo post, about a meeting with around 100 school principals to discuss the future of China’s education, was flooded with critical comments.
“I will not be surprised if old mother is imprisoned one day,” the top commenter said. ‘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.
“He just has silence, which is a ‘special way of life,'” Zhang Feng, a columnist, wrote in a widely shared WeChat post-event article.
“This kind of silence is of profound importance. For a public figure, speech is in itself an “extension” of his existence. When a person no longer speaks, even though he is still alive, still doing things, at least part of him has “disappeared”.