What on earth happened to Jack Ma?

On the trail of China's vanishing billionaire

Here’s a hot business tip: if you are an enterprising China expert with a book to sell, have you considered going on TV to explain what happened to Jack Ma? The Chinese billionaire tycoon who lived in the spotlight vanished more than two months ago, and all sorts of Beijing watchers have swanned onto the sets of financial TV shows to have a stab at locating the lost Ma and plug their latest work.

Turn on the news and you’ll see them saying he’s under house arrest; or he’s fled China and hiding in a secret bolthole; or that he’s in some nightmare prison camp getting Mao’s Little Red Book beamed into his eyeballs, Clockwork Orange-style. Alarm bells first rang when he didn’t appear on a TV talent show he judged, Africa’s Business Heroes, and was scrubbed out of its promotional material. Now it’s coming up to three months since he was last seen in public, prompting fears that he has suffered a similar fate to other Chinese celebrities who were temporarily vaporised under mysterious circumstances, like Guo Guangchang, the investor, and Ren Zhiqiang, the real estate mogul.

So where is he? It was certainly out of character for Ma to have gone missing – he is not a reclusive oddball billionaire in the mould of the Koch Brothers or Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. He had relinquished day-to-day control of his empire, which included the e-commerce site Alibaba and the fintech giant Ant Group, but remained its public face and kept a busy schedule as a tech salonier, giving speeches about how to succeed in business.

As a former English teacher and university reject who rose to become one of the richest men on earth, Ma’s story resonates with everyone who has ever clicked on a YouTube video promising to reveal the secrets of billionaires. Ma played up to this in his frequent talks and Q&As, channelling the wisdom of Warren Buffett and the zaniness of Elon Musk.

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