SEOUL, South Korea – Jack Ma is back, and he has eaten a little humble pie.
After a nearly three-month public absence that drew speculation over his fate following a clash with Chinese regulators, the billionaire behind e-commerce giant Alibaba emerged Wednesday in an online speech congratulating rural teachers who were receiving an award from his philanthropic campaign.
“During this period, my colleagues and I have been studying and thinking, and we have even more strongly devoted ourselves to the idea of educational philanthropy,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech published by Tianmu News, a Chinese state-owned news agency.
A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation confirmed the entrepreneur participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event on Jan. 20, but declined to answer further questions.
The tame remarks were a contrast to Ma’s last public speech in October, in which he blasted China’s financial regulators for stifling innovation.
It turned out Ma picked the wrong fight: After his criticism, Beijing regulators scuttled the IPO plans for Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial services spinoff, and launched an antitrust investigation against Alibaba, a rare level of reprisal against one of China’s crown jewel companies.
His reappearance in a mundane setting such as the teachers’ awards speech – instead of a groveling public apology – could suggest that Ma’s relations with Beijing are on the mend.
Public figures in serious trouble with the Chinese Communist Party sometimes end their disappearances with scripted public apologies or fast-tracked court trials. In 2018, Fan Bingbing, China’s most famous movie star, reemerged after a months-long disappearance to confess to tax evasion and pay a hefty fine.
“I feel ashamed and guilty about what I have done, and I sincerely apologize to you all!” she wrote on social media platform Weibo.
Ma, in contrast, didn’t apologize for his previous remarks on Wednesday or make scripted praises of the party. But he spoke positively about the government’s poverty alleviation campaign and said business people like himself had a responsibility to aid educational authorities in supporting teachers.
He also told the 100 teachers receiving the award that they would meet in balmy Sanya, a popular vacation destination in southern China, after the coronavirus situation had improved.
“When the pandemic has passed, we will definitely find a time to make up everyone’s trip to Sanya, so see you then!” he said.
Alibaba shares were up about 9% in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
A former English teacher from Hangzhou, Ma founded Alibaba in 1999 and built it into China’s version of Amazon, with annual revenue of $50 billion. Ant Group was spun off from Alibaba in 2014, after a decade as Alibaba’s in-house payment processing arm.
Ma became a business celebrity in China, widely admired for his success and colorful public appearances, including his rock-and-roll performances at annual employee galas.
Ant Group has long had an uneasy relationship with China’s traditional financial system, with its popular mobile payments service taking business from state-owned banks. But up until Ma made his speech in October, in which he likened state banks to “pawnshops,” Ant Group was still on track for the biggest IPO in history.
Soon after his speech, Ma was summoned by regulators and Ant Group’s IPO plans were suspended.
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The Washington Post’s Jeanne Whalen in Washington contributed to this report.