The sudden news today that Jack Ma had “re-appeared” – in a 43-second video clip, after an unexplained public absence of almost three months – splashed headlines around the world. It was important enough to run just below stories about the U.S. presidential inauguration.
Jack Ma — world-class Chinese entrepreneur, visionary, showman, founder and controlling shareholder of internet giant Alibaba BABA , and of The Ant Group, the world’s leading Fintech platform, the richest man in Asia, the most famous living Chinese person (well ahead of Xi Jinping, and trailing only Mao, Confucius and Bruce Lee in the all-time rankings) – had become a sort of national champion, a combination of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates rolled into one, a symbol of China’s economic and technological rise
- “It is hard to overstate the importance in China of Mr. Ma and his two companies. They have become synonymous to innovation. The media in China calls the country’s rising tech sector, ‘The era of Ma.’”
…and he had gone missing…
In the meantime the Chinese government had halted Ma’s $37 Bn public offering for The Ant Group – recall that it was scheduled to become the biggest IPO in history – and began a series of public scoldings of Ant, and by implication of Ma. Regulators announced proposals for a thorough restructuring – or “rectification” – of Ant, to regulate it more aggressively, to break it up and “carve out the most lucrative units.” They floated the idea of sequestering Ant’s most important assets — its trove of customer data — and handing it over to a state-owned company. Then they turned on Alibaba.
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While all this corporate surgery was being publicly discussed, Jack Ma had not been seen in public since October. His name and photograph were removed from publicity websites and promotional material for long-scheduled events he had orchestrated in the past.
- “And so last week, when it became apparent that Ma had failed to turn up for a recent taping of a TV program he created and was known to be passionate about, analysts, investors, and the financial press began to wonder: Where is Jack?”
Ominous speculation arose. Fortune wrote that “The rumors alone represent a chilling new message from Beijing.”
- “His disappearance is reminiscent of past instances in which Beijing has detained business executives without warning for what it sees as impropriety.”
The video at least established that Mr. Ma is still alive. That was enough to send Alibaba’s shares soaring – a $40 Bn gain in market value in one day. Such was the value of comfort just to know that investors’ worst fears might not be true.
Deconstructing 43 Seconds
But what is the significance of this $40 Bn video clip?
In this new age of “Deep Fakes” and super-lifelike avatars, it is hard to completely discount the possibility that Jack Ma’s brief emergence today could have been a triumph of artificial intelligence and image processing. The video is very short, the topic is puzzlingly irrelevant, and Ma himself is almost devoid of affect. Who knows when or where it was made? But – it looks real. (One wonders, though, as technology advances, how much longer “looks real” will be a meaningful expression.)
Does this video change — or confirm — the concerns?
Consider the surface facts.
- The video was published by Chinese state media. We have to assume it serves their purposes.
- Alibaba had no official comment. Why not? They must have some information – unless they don’t…
- It is impossibly brief – and carries no real identifying information, no certain date.
- It is impossibly irrelevant – it says nothing about anything of importance, nothing about the events of the last few months, nothing about dismantling Alibaba or Ant, or the deleted IPO, or the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of enterprise value. Just bland remarks supposedly addressed to a small group of rural high-school teachers, online. It seems purposefully inconsequential. Here’s a sample (translated by Google GOOG ):
- “I have been studying and thinking [says Jack], and have become more determined to devote myself to education and public welfare. Education, especially rural education, is of great importance…. Rural life will become better and better in the future.”
Is Ma speaking in code here? Does “education” mean Re-education? Does a Rural Future mean a life put out to pasture, far removed from the action? Rustication. (Involuntary) Retirement?
Hard to say. The video clip proves that Jack Ma lives and breathes, perhaps, but nothing else for sure.
Message Delivered: Jack Ma Brought Low
Whether or not this video is a sign of Ma’s possible rehabilitation, it constitutes a sad spectacle. I recommend you view the video and compare it with other videos of Jack Ma from happier times. The normal-mode Jack Ma is a consummate showman, attention-loving, reveling in his fluency in English and his grasp of modern idioms. He is described as “flamboyant,” “brash and charismatic.” He is dramatic and animated, with a highly expressive and emotive facial expressions. His hands gesticulate expansively, even in seated interviews. He is a compelling presence. The man exudes an impishness, physically, and you feel he is having great fun being Jack Ma. Yes, go look at a few of the real Jack Ma interviews or speeches. There are dozens of them online.,
In today’s video, it is a different man we see. Ma looks ill-at-ease, perhaps even nervous. He swallows hard a few times. He does not gesture. His hands rest in his lap and do not move. He does not smile once. Perhaps unsurprisingly he speaks only in Chinese – although he certainly knew that even the briefest salutation or good wishes expressed in English would have carried a great reassurance to his global audience.
This has to be seen as a hostage video. The old-school form of “fake news.” Whether it was scripted (possibly/probably) or not, it seems that way. Whether it was in any way physically coerced…who knows. But you can feel how Ma senses that he is being closely watched by unseen others, as he delivers this little speech.
I think the government’s message comes through loud and clear in the bit of propaganda: See, even Jack Ma has been humbled, sidelined, neutered. You haven’t seen him in 88 days! We’ll give you 43 seconds.
There is pathos here. A man who is above all a master communicator – certainly one of the geniuses of our time, and seemingly a very decent human being – reduced to 43 seconds of insubstantiality. (An American reader might try to imagine what it would take to get Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk to give such a performance….)
But (the message reminds us) this is China under Xi Jinping. If we can reduce even Jack Ma to this, consider what we can do to you.