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Alibaba Executive Says Jack Ma Is Lying Low, Avoiding Spotlight

Jack Ma, considered the most famous businessman in China, is “lying low,” an Alibaba executive said on Tuesday.

The Chinese e-commerce giant’s co-founder with Ma, Joe Tsai, told the media that he speaks to Mr. Ma every day, adding: “He’s actually doing very, very well. He’s taken up painting as a hobby, it’s actually pretty good.”

Mr. Ma has stepped out of the spotlight after falling foul of Chinese regulators in November.

The dual stock market debut of Mr. Ma’s digital payments company and Alibaba subsidiary, Ant Group, in Hong Kong and Shanghai -which worth around $34.4 billion- was about to make him the country’s richest man once again.

However, China’s regulators halted what was meant to be the world’s biggest initial public offering at the last minute.

Authorities cited “major issues” over the company’s regulation as a reason for suspending the public offering. But Ma’s criticism of the Chinese financial sector in October last year is believed to have prompted the move.

Critics and analysts called the regulators’ decision an attempt by Beijing to humble a company that had become too powerful with a too outspoken leader.

The move came after Mr. Ma compared traditional banks to “pawn shops” at a fintech conference. Back then, he praised the merits of the digital banking system instead, stressing that future lending decisions should be based on data rather than collateral.

The Chinese government subsequently launched an antitrust investigation into Alibaba, the country’s largest e-commerce platform.

As a result, Chinese regulators fined Alibaba $2.8 billion, saying the company had abused its market position for years. Two days later, Ant Group announced a drastic restructuring plan, following demands from regulators to act more like a bank than a technology company.

Ant Group runs China’s leading online payment system, Alipay, which has overshadowed conventional payment methods such as cash, credit cards, and checks.

Alibaba, which owns a third of Ant Group, saw its share price fall on the stock markets after Beijing announced the suspension. Mr. Tsai, who is also Alibaba’s executive chairman, rejected the idea that Mr. Ma had become a maverick-like figure, saying: “The idea that Jack has this enormous amount of power, I think that’s not quite right,” he said.

“He is just like you and me, he’s a normal individual,” Mr. Tsai added.

Mr. Tsai explained that, after all his efforts, Mr. Ma planned to focus on the things he really wanted to spend his time on, like his hobbies and philanthropic work. However, he added that the firm continues to move forward and said: “you have to separate what’s happening to Jack and what’s happening to our business.”

“Our business is under some kind of restructuring on the financial side of things, and also in antitrust regulation,” he stated. “We had to pay a big fine. But we’ve gotten that behind us, so we’re looking forward.”