Untold story behind charity drive

Editorial | Mary Ma 10 Sep 2018

Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma Yun is extraordinary - turning 54 today, he's due to announce a succession plan for him to retire earlier than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who's already 62.

Even more extraordinary was the disclosure by Ma's mouthpiece, the South China Morning Post, that he had been thinking about it for 10 years, which means the idea to retire surfaced when he was just 44. But wouldn't that be too young to think about retirement?

If he truly did, Ma must unquestionably be exceptional.

The news about his retirement was first reported by The New York Times, which quoted him as saying in an interview he planned to step down from the helm on his 54th birthday to pursue philanthropy in education.

The Times reported that Ma would remain on Alibaba's board of directors to continue as a mentor for its management.

Unsurprisingly, Alibaba share price plunged in after-hours trading in New York. Soon enough, the company reacted quickly through its paper SCMP - dismissing the report of Ma's stepping down as factually wrong. Instead, it said Ma had asked his deputies 10 years ago what Alibaba would do without him.

The Post said Ma, Alibaba's executive chairman, would provide transitional plans over a significant period of time.

Only Ma - currently the mainland's richest individual - can say what's really on his mind. The developing episode, nonetheless, is fascinating.

First, it's the elaborate preparation he has made to sound out the potentially shocking news. His audience was the Americans, and he knew they would subscribe to the story line of tycoons switching to philanthropy. By likening himself to Gates, he could expect his audience to readily accept his story.

Second, the episode unfolds at a time when the mainland's super-rich are having tough times at home. Earlier, Dalian Wanda Group chairman Wang Jianlin, once ranked as the country's richest tycoon, came under attack from state media for spending lavishly in acquiring sports and entertainment firms as Beijing stepped up its crackdown on capital outflows.

Subsequent reports that Wang was prevented from leaving China prompted his firm to dismiss the reports as "groundless."

Then, another mainland giant - HNA Group - was brought to its knees. HNA may be best known to Hongkongers, as the Hainan-based conglomerate shelled out astronomical sums to snap up Kai Tak sites. Incidentally, its chairman, Wang Jian, fell to his death during a business trip in France in July, in what French police said appeared to be an accident.

Ma's succession plan is being played up at a time when Beijing is targeting the tech industry.

Tencent, Alibaba's major rival, saw its share price rolling down the slope after Beijing announced new regulations censoring smartphone games on the grounds of health hazards to youths. With its last share closing at HK$316.80, the tech giant helmed by Pony Ma Huateng has lost one third of its market capitalization since hitting the peak in January.

Also, Ma's plan to float Ant Financial had to be pushed back recently, citing poor timing. Oops, bad timing was blamed.

So after Ma, who will be the next tycoon to retire into philanthropy?

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