Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, according to media reports quoting a CNBC journalist, is not missing but just “lying low” in his own headquarters at Hangzhou. It is unlikely, though, that Jack, last seen publicly in late October 2020, would go into self-hiding. There are no immediate reasons for his self-isolation unless he is either seriously ill or has tested positive for the dreaded coronavirus. Even if he is ‘lying low’, it has to be to avoid or dodge the Xi Jinping administration following his criticism of the country’s financial regulators. If that is the case, it is much more serious because this would validate the apprehensions that not everything is hunky-dory between the technology entrepreneur and the Chinese government.
It is no secret that Jack Ma, a school teacher and graduate in English language, was inspired and learned the business tricks in the US, a country his government vehemently opposes as hegemonic. His leap to success and extraordinary financial strength through his 21-year-old Alibaba Group of companies was mainly because of the absence of rivals and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s concessions on economic rules and regulations. But it is also true that a section of the century-old CCP was either suspicious of his intentions or not comfortable with one business tycoon amassing wealth, in total contravention of core Marxist principles.
The top brass of the CCP seems to be worried over ‘Westernisation’, increasing use of the internet, and tilt towards religion among the youth and the aged alike. In 2018, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which is responsible for inculcating the ideology of socialism, had passed a rule asking CCP members to give up religion and be “firm Marxist atheists”. Xi Jinping was the head of the CCP’s Central Party School, which is the apex rule-making body. Incidentally, one of its professors, Cai Xia, turned a bitter critic of Xi Jinping’s policies and authoritarianism, and defected to the US. She was expelled from the party.
The Communist party was also worried about the growing sense of inequality among the educated youth, who find it very difficult to balance between Marx and market. Unable to find a solution to the growing disenchantment, the CCP genuinely feared a repetition of the Tiananmen Square incident. The party high-command resorted to two quick-fix solutions.
The change for more control
The first change was to amend the party constitution and frame new rules for its cadre to call for the ‘removal of corrupt’ leaders. This was touted as being more democratic. But the rule that really changed – and was publicised in smaller font – was that more than 90 million party members were strictly forbidden from airing their criticism of the CCP ‘in public’. Article 16 of the CCP says, “When discussing and making decisions on any matter, Party organizations must keep to the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority”. But more importantly, it did not prevent members from airing contrarian views. Now with the increase of social media, albeit strictly controlled and regimented by the Chinese State, Article 16 of the CCP rule book has been amended, forbidding party members from publicly expressing opinions that are inconsistent with the decisions of the Central Committee of the CCP.
Ironically, the only public platforms available were the ones created and controlled by the Xi Jinping government. But it probably still wasn’t easy to contain the growing resentment and feeling of deprivation, especially among the country’s educated class.
The second major damage control was to launch an investigation into the alleged “monopolistic practices” of Jack Ma’s company and its subsidiary Ant Group, which launched the ‘Alipay’ online payment system and began giving loans to small and medium establishments, spurring private business in a big way. When this was frowned upon by the existing banking system, closely controlled by some top functionaries of the CCP, Jack Ma ridiculed them, saying they were like “pawn shops”. Angered by these comments, he was summoned by the regulators and told to behave.
What’s ahead of Jack Ma
Needless to say, the final authority of the command structure in China rests with the General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping, who is also the chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the president of the country, a concentration of power and authority wielded only by Chairman Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping, twice purged by Mao, advocated collective leadership and made systemic changes to ‘prevent the rise of another dictator’. Deng’s policy of opening up to the world encouraged Chinese scholars and students to go to the West and acquire technical knowledge and skills. After initial opposition, this project was adopted in the 1990s and Jack Ma can be said to be one of the most prominent beneficiaries of this change.
The inherent contradictions of the Communist ideology and its inability to comprehend the current challenges posed by the market economy are at play in China. Leaders who have been purged earlier have managed to rise to the top after ‘lying low’ for some time. All they need to do is remain alive. Is Jack Ma all set to inherit Deng’s legacy? Perhaps he can return as China’s Mikhail Gorbachev.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.