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Jack Ma and the case of disappearing Chinese business leaders

By JUSTINE PUNZALAN Published Jan 05, 2021 8:20 pm

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has been out of the public eye for two months. 

His disappearance is deemed unusual worldwide. But not in China, where business leaders suddenly going off the radar has become a familiar situation.

Ma’s last public appearance was in a high-profile conference in Shanghai last October, where he reportedly criticized China’s regulatory system, calling them an "old people's club" ill-suited to oversee Chinese tech innovation.

After the incident, the 56-year-old tycoon missed the final episode of Africa’s Business Heroes, a TV show he founded and used to appear in as judge. According to The Telegraph, another Alibaba executive replaced Ma, and the billionaire’s photo was removed from the show’s website.

Chinese regulators then opened an antitrust investigation into Alibaba, which led to the decline of the company’s value by more than a quarter since Oct. 24, 2020.

In addition to that, the regulators implemented rules that suspended the $37 billion initial public offering (IPO) of Ma’s financial services company, Ant Group.

Photo: Getty Images

Ant Group later released a statement saying that it would establish a “rectification working group” and “fully implement requirements” as ordered by the regulators.

“We will enlarge the scope and magnitude of opening up for win-win collaboration, review and rectify our work in consumer rights protection, and comprehensively improve our business compliance and sense of social responsibility,” the company said. “Ant will make its rectification plan and working timetable in a timely manner and seek regulators’ guidance in the process.”

While the whereabouts of China’s richest man remains unknown, Bloomberg reported that he was advised by the government to stay in the country.

Ma’s silence is just one of the many cases where business leaders in hot water with Chinese authorities have gone missing. Some of them have returned to their post, while others did not.

Ren Zhiqiang

Photo: S.Xianming/Picture Alliance

A year before Ma’s disappearance, retired real-estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang was also nowhere to be found. Zhiqiang is known as an outspoken government critic who has close ties to senior Chinese officials.

He ceased to be visible since March 2019, when he allegedly wrote an essay lambasting President Xi Jinping’s response to COVID-19. He was later charged with corruption-related offenses which, according to CNN Business, included embezzling $16.3 million in public funds, accepting bribes, and abuse of power. All of which, the court said, he pleaded guilty to.

Zhiqiang, 69, was then sentenced to 18 years in prison and imposed a fine of $620,000. The court said he "voluntarily confessed all of his crimes" and "was willing to accept the court's verdict after all of his illegal gains were recovered.”

Meng Hongwei

Photo: The Guardian

Meng Hongwei was China's Vice-Minister for Public Security before he was elected president of Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization) in 2016.

In an interview with The Guardian, Hongwei’s wife, Grace, said that her husband vanished in September 2018 during a routine visit home from France. He sent her a short message: “Wait for my call,” followed by an emoji of a knife. His call never came.

In October that year, China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that Meng was under investigation on “suspicion of violating the law” and “under the supervision” of an anti-corruption watchdog tied to the party.

Grace, on the other hand, believed that her husband’s detention was politically motivated.

"It's not justice," she told The Guardian. ”I think the anti-corruption campaign in China has already been damaged. It has become a way of attacking people who are your enemy."

In January 2020, the court sentenced 67-year-old Meng to 13 1/2 years in prison on bribery charges. According to China’s main state broadcaster, CCTV, the former Vice-Minister “truthfully confessed to all the facts of the crimes.”

Wu Xiaohui

Photo: Qulai Shen/Bloomberg

Wu Xiachui is the chairman of major Chinese insurer Anbang Insurance Group. According to CNN Money, Anbang is known for owning luxury assets around the world, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

This then attracted scrutiny from Chinese authorities at a time when they were attempting to stabilize the country's financial services industry and clamp down on corruption.

Wu went missing in June 2017, following his talks with the family firm of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, over a Manhattan office tower.

The 54-year-old businessman was reported to have been detained by authorities as part of a government investigation. Meanwhile, Anbang Insurance Group released a short statement, saying that Wu "cannot perform his duties due to personal reasons.”

Xiao Jianhua

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong

Xiao Jianhua, an asset manager of China’s ruling elite, was abducted from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong in January 2017. 

Like many other tycoons, Xiao, 48, was accused by Chinese regulators of taking prospect investors away from Chinese stock markets, The Guardian said. 

In July 2020, regulators took over the companies—two insurers, two trust firms, two securities firms, and a futures company—tied to Tomorrow Group, the hundred billion-worth umbrella company that Xiao controlled for more than two decades, according to The New York Times.

While there is no clue about the tycoon’s whereabouts, Tomorrow Group confirmed that Xiao was on the mainland, cooperating with the government while it restructured his conglomerate.

Zhou Chengjian

Photo: Qulai Shen/Bloomberg

Zhou Chengjian, founder of China's leading retailer Shanghai Metersbonwe Fashion & Accessories, vanished in January 2016.

His company halted trading its shares following reports that the 55-year-old textile tycoon had been detained by authorities. He returned to work 10 days later, CNN Money said. His company, however, kept its mouth shut on Zhou’s sudden disappearance.

Guo Guangchang

Photo: Eric Piermont/AFP

Guo Guangchang heads Fosun International, a conglomerate that offers services ranging from steelmaking to mining, tourism, and pharmaceuticals.

He has been dubbed the Warren Buffet of China. But according to CNN Money, his fame and fortune did not save him from disappearing for several days at the end of 2015. 

When the 53-year-old tycoon finally resurfaced, the company said in a statement that he had been assisting in investigations “carried out by mainland judiciary authorities."

Banner photos from nytimes.com, Getty Images, and VCG.