China’s best-known entrepreneur Jack Ma is “lying low” and avoiding the spotlight, according to an Alibaba executive.

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Joe Tsai, who co-founded the Chinese e-commerce giant with Mr Ma, told CNBC he speaks to him every day.

“He’s actually doing very, very well. He’s taken up painting as a hobby, it’s actually pretty good,” said Mr Tsai.

Mr Ma has been noticeably absent after falling foul of China’s regulators in November.

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He had been set to become China’s richest man yet again following the dual stock market debut of his digital payments company Ant Group – an affiliate of Alibaba – in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which was worth about $34.4bn (£26.5bn).

What was meant to be the world’s biggest initial public offering was halted by Chinese regulators at the eleventh hour, citing “major issues” over regulating the company.
It is believed Mr Ma’s criticism of the Chinese financial sector in October prompted the move.

Some analysts saw it as an attempt by Beijing to humble a company that had become too powerful and a leader who had become too outspoken.

At a financial technology conference, he had compared traditional banks to “pawn shops”, lauding the merits of the digital banking system instead, as well as stressing that future lending decisions should be based on data, not collateral.

Ant Group runs Alipay, the main online payment system in China, which has eclipsed cash, cheques and credit cards.

Alibaba, which owns a third of Ant Group, saw its share price plunge on stock markets after the suspension was announced.

Antitrust probe

Following this, China announced an antitrust probe into Alibaba, which is China’s largest e-commerce platform.

This culminated in Alibaba being fined $2.8bn by Chinese regulators in April, who said it had abused its market position for years.

And two days later, Ant Group announced a drastic restructuring plan, with regulators forcing it to act more like a bank than a tech firm.

Mr Tsai, who is also the executive chairman of Alibaba, said that he disagreed with the idea that Mr Ma had become a maverick-like figure.

“The idea that Jack has this enormous amount of power, I think that’s not quite right,” he said. “He is just like you and me, he’s a normal individual.”

He added that after all his efforts, Mr Ma now just wanted to focus on the things he really wanted to spend time on, like philanthropy work and hobbies.

However, Mr Tsai said the firm was moving forward: “I think you have to separate what’s happening to Jack and what’s happening to our business.

“Our business is under some kind of restructuring on the financial side of things, and also in antitrust regulation.

“We had to pay a big fine. But we’ve gotten that behind us, so we’re looking forward.”

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