Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma is starting a teaching position in Japan as the Chinese entrepreneur begins to reassume a public profile after largely disappearing from view during Beijing’s crackdown on tech.
Tokyo College said on Monday that Ma had joined as a visiting professor from May 1 and would research projects in sustainable agriculture and food production as well as deliver seminars on entrepreneurship.
The charismatic entrepreneur was China’s best-known business leader and used to give freewheeling interviews to foreign media. But he retreated from the spotlight after his criticism of Chinese regulators in late 2020 culminated in the cancellation of a blockbuster $37bn initial public offering by Ant Group, the fintech affiliate of Alibaba.
The Tokyo College position marks a rare public statement of the billionaire’s commitments outside China. The Financial Times reported that Ma spent much of last year in central Tokyo, keeping public activities to a minimum, as China battled to contain spreading outbreaks of Covid-19 with stringent lockdown measures.
The Ant IPO cancellation ushered in a slew of regulatory action against the country’s biggest tech giants, including a record $2.8bn fine against Alibaba for anti-competitive behaviour.
Over the past few months, Beijing has issued a series of public statements signalling that regulatory issues with the internet sector have been resolved, in a bid to bolster investor and entrepreneurial confidence.
Ma returned to mainland China in March to support plans by Alibaba’s chief executive Daniel Zhang to restructure the group into six separate units, an ambitious shake-up designed to reverse a sluggish share price performance.
“Ma’s return to China was hugely symbolic. He is representative of entrepreneurial confidence in the country,” said Brian A. Wong, a former Alibaba executive and author of The Tao of Alibaba, adding that it was a signal that “Alibaba is refreshing”.
“Jack is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the company after his retirement, but his views and opinions still carry weight and have influence behind the scenes,” Wong added.
Ma’s role in Tokyo combined his interest in education and familiarity with Japan, Wong said. “He has always enjoyed visiting the country. He has great respect for its culture, loves the food and has friends there.”
Since handing over the reins of the company to Zhang, Ma has focused on educational activities and philanthropy. Last month, the former teacher accepted an appointment as an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong to conduct research on finance and agriculture.
His new role in Japan comes after the country’s leading venture capital group SoftBank has moved to sell almost all of its remaining shareholding in Alibaba, one of the most successful technology investments ever.
Ma relinquished control of Ant Group in January, reducing his stake in the company and paving the way for a possible listing in Hong Kong or Shanghai.
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