Alibaba founder Jack Ma has returned to China after months abroad

Alibaba founder Jack Ma has been seen publicly in China after the first time in several months. The return of the billionaire may indicate that Beijing is softening its stance towards the technology sector after an 18-month campaign.

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Alibaba founder Jack Ma has been seen in China after spending months abroad in a possible sign that Beijing is turning to the tech giants again after an 18-month crackdown on the sector.

Ma visited the Yungu School in Hangzhou, the city where Alibaba is headquartered, to talk with teachers about how to provide education for children in the age of artificial intelligence, according to a WeChat post from the school.

The billionaire said that technologies such as the popular ChatGPT have brought challenges to education, but AI can be used to solve problems, according to WeChat.

This is the first time Ma has appeared publicly in China since last year. Ma has traveled outside of China over the past few months and has been seen in Spain, Japan and Thailand.

Ma’s resurgence follows an intense crackdown on his empire that began in late 2020 when Ant Group, the billionaire fintech company, was forced to suspend its massive listings in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Ma made comments that seemed critical of China’s financial regulator before the listing was cancelled.

Subsequently, Beijing tightened regulations for the domestic sector. Alibaba, which Ma founded, was hit with a $2.6 billion antitrust fine in 2021.

Ant Group is undergoing reforms under China’s central bank to comply with regulations while Ma has been slowly relinquishing control of the fintech company.

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China’s tightening of technology sector rules has investors worried that President Xi Jinping was turning on private companies and entrepreneurs.

However, China faced weak economic growth over the past year due to the policy of not spreading the new Corona virus. Meanwhile, Beijing has revitalized the economy. Allowing Ma to return to the fold may be Beijing’s recognition that it needs private companies to do so.

Getting economic growth back on track is probably the biggest policy priority [Communist] The party is facing at the moment, and the more optimistic business class is key to that,” Chen Sun, senior lecturer in Chinese and East Asian business at King’s College London, told CNBC by email.

Sun said he suspected there was “some kind of deal” between Ma and the government to get him back and appearing in public.

“By doing so, the government intends to signal its warmth towards the private sector and investors — if Jack Ma is deemed to have been pardoned, everyone else should feel safe and welcome,” Sun said.

There are other signs that Beijing is easing some of its regulatory clampdown on the sector. Regulators were licensing foreign games to be released in China, for example. Chinese passenger services company Didi, which faced a cybersecurity probe from regulators and was forced to delist from the New York Stock Exchange, also indicated it was looking to expand its business.

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