Alibaba founder Jack Ma makes first live appearance in three months in virtual meeting

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group arrives at the “Tech for Good” Summit in Paris, France.

Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma made his first appearance since October on Wednesday when he spoke to a group of teachers by video, easing concern about his unusual absence from public life and sending shares in the e-commerce giant surging.

Speculation over Ma’s whereabouts has swirled in the wake of news this month that he was replaced in the final episode of a reality TV show he had been a judge on, and amid a regulatory clampdown by Beijing on his sprawling business empire.

The billionaire, who commands a cult-like reverence in China, had not appeared in public since Oct. 24, when he blasted China’s regulatory system in a speech at a Shanghai forum. That set him on a collision course with officials and led to the suspension of a blockbuster $37 billion IPO for Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Group.

Alibaba and his charitable foundation both confirmed he participated in an online ceremony for an annual event for rural teachers on Wednesday.

In the 50-second video, Ma, wearing a navy pullover, spoke from a room with grey walls, a large painting and floral arrangements. It was not clear where the room was.

He addressed teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, who in previous years would have attended a ceremony organised by the Jack Ma Foundation in the Chinese seaside city of Sanya.

“We cannot meet in Sanya due to the epidemic,” he said in the speech, which did not discuss his whereabouts. “When the epidemic is over, we must find time to make up for everyone’s trip to Sanya, and then we will meet again!”

Alibaba’s Hong Kong-listed shares jumped over 10% on the news, which was first reported by Tianmu News, a media outlet backed by the government of Zhejiang, the province where Alibaba’s headquarters are based.

“Jack Ma’s reappearance has given investors peace of mind after a lot of rumours, allowing them to pile into the stock which had been a laggard in the market,” said Steven Leung, sales director at brokerage UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong.

Xie Pu, founder of Chinese tech website Techie Crab, said the media and public had over-interpreted Ma’s move to lay low and that his step away from the public spotlight should not have been seen as a problem for Alibaba.

“We shouldn’t over-interpret his reappearance into public view this time, said Xie Pu, founder of Chinese tech website Techie Crab. “Alibaba still has a good governance structure — there are partners and a board of directors.”

The topic “Jack Ma makes his first public appearance” and his video address to the teachers soon began trending on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, triggering heavy discussion.

Although Ma has stepped down from corporate positions and earnings calls, he retains significant influence over Alibaba and Ant and promotes them globally at business and political events. He also continues to mentor management talent in the “Alibaba Partnership”, a 35-member group of company managers.

China has stepped up a regulatory crackdown on anticompetitive behaviour in the internet sector and Alibaba became the target of an antitrust investigation launched last month by Chinese authorities.

The company plans to raise at least $5 billion through the sale of a U.S. dollar-denominated bond this month.

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