Pacific Dialogue
Where is Jack Ma?
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-02-06  ·   Source: NO.5-6 FEBRUARY 9, 2023

"Where is Jack Ma?" It was a question that resonated around the world when Elon Musk first raised it at a conference in September 2021. And it once again became a trending topic when many political and economic experts noted how well-known Chinese private entrepreneurs, including the cofounder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and former richest man in China—Ma Yun, also known as Jack Ma—were absent from the World Economic Forum annual meeting and its peripheral activities in the Swiss ski-resort town of Davos from January 16 to 20. Several Western media outlets interpreted this "phenomenon" as an increasingly serious suppression of private capital in China, suggesting that China is turning back the wheel of history and returning to its planned economy era (1949-78).

In fact, Ma has been living quite the globetrotting retirement life. Over the Chinese New Year holiday, from January 21 to 27, he reportedly hosted a series of meetings with friends and finance executives in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which some believe foreshowed his return to the business world. In addition, 45 representatives of 25 Chinese companies did go to Davos this year, though many kept a low profile.

But China did take note of the global "search" for Jack Ma. Over the past three years, against the backdrop of COVID-19, the Chinese economy and the confidence of Chinese entrepreneurs have taken a hard hit. What's more, the Chinese Government strengthened its regulation of malpractices in the real estate, Internet, online gaming, extracurricular tutoring and other industries where private capital concentrates. But misinterpretations of these measures led some entrepreneurs to doubt whether the government was just paying lip service when it publicly claimed to support private enterprises. And the fact that some local governments' excessive COVID-19 prevention and control measures heavily interfered with normal business production and operation processes was also reason for complaint among private entrepreneurs.

But the aforementioned by no means indicates that the Chinese Government wants to exclude private enterprises from its economic paradigm. Since 1978, when China first implemented its reform and opening-up policy, the main feature of the country's economic restructuring has been to continuously open up areas previously dominated by the public economy to the private businesses and foreign capital, while constantly improving economic legislation and establishing rules and regulations from scratch. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, in clear terms, that China will firmly support the private sector and "let the market play a decisive role in resource allocation" in his report delivered at the opening of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on October 16 last year.

According to data released by the State Administration for Market Supervision on October 11, 2022, the number of private enterprises in China grew from 10.8 million in late 2012 to 47 million last August, quadrupling in just one decade. Currently, private enterprises have created more than 80 percent of China's jobs and are crucial to the healthy development of China's economy.

However, the country's public opinion has evolved over time. Successful business people with huge fortunes are no longer idolized; the wider public hopes to see these moguls assume more social responsibility. Some hugely influential companies have been criticized, or even sued, for monopolistic conduct as they leave little room for small and medium-sized companies to survive—let alone thrive.

For China, the most pressing matter remains the continuous improvement of the related legal system, to ensure both government and enterprises act within the boundaries of the law.

As Vice Premier Liu He made very clear at this year's World Economic Forum session, it is impossible for China to return to a planned economy. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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