Alibaba Stock Jumps After Jack Ma Resurfaces

China Power list: Jack Ma - Getty-H 2016
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The celebrity billionaire hadn't been in public since Oct. 25, when he gave a speech criticizing the Chinese government's financial regulators, which resulted in a harsh crackdown on his business empire.

Beleaguered Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, whose recent absence from the spotlight had sparked fervent speculation about his whereabouts, made his first public appearance in nearly three months on Wednesday.

The celebrity tech tycoon gave a live video address to a group of Chinese teachers who were receiving accolades during an educational event supported by his philanthropic group, the Jack Ma Foundation, Chinese state media reported.

Alibaba’s Hong Kong-listed stock jumped 8.5 percent in response to the news. The e-commerce giant's New York-listed shares also climbed 3.5 percent in after-hours trading. Even the Hong Kong shares of Alibaba Picture Group, Ma's film studio, finished up 3 percent on Wednesday.

The video remarks were Ma's first public appearance since Oct. 25, when he gave the now infamous speech that would plunge his Alibaba business empire into turmoil. Addressing a collection of business leaders and government figures at a financial conference in Shanghai, Ma sharply criticized China's regulators and state-owned banks for their backwardness. The remarks infuriated China's communist party leadership, leading Chinese president Xi Jinping to personally order the cancelation of the imminent blockbuster public offering planned for Alibaba's fintech firm Ant Financial. Expected to raise at least $34 billion, Ant's IPO would have been the biggest stock-market debut in history.

Since then, the clouds only have darkened further for Ma and Alibaba. In late December, Chinese regulators bluntly announced they were launching an antitrust investigation into Alibaba's flagship e-commerce business, as well as enforcing new rules constraining Ant's business activities. Around the same time, government investigators were reported entering Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou.

The speculation around Ma's whereabouts been gathering steam in early January after reporters noticed the spotlight-loving celebrity businessman hadn't stepped out in nearly two months. China's weak rule of law and Beijing's past practice of detaining figures who offend the party, no matter how wealthy or well known, were the backdrop to the rumor-mongering.

When China's most recognizable actress, Fan Binging, was accused of tax evasion in 2018, she spent months in secret detention. Guo Guangchang, the billionaire founder of Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group, similarly disappeared into police custody in 2015 as part of an explained "special investigation." The tycoon later returned to his post, but not before the incident rattled China's investor community and sent Fosun's shares plunging.