How Jack Ma lost his spot at China’s business top table

How Jack Ma lost his spot at China’s business top table

Regulators and rivals have been lobbying against Ant Group’s growing dominance in payments and lending for some time

For years, Alibaba founder Jack Ma has had a safe spot at the top table of Chinese business. Members of the Chinese Entrepreneurs Association even recall an evening outing on West Lake in Hangzhou some years ago when he boasted about his close relations with the president, dating from when Xi Jinping was a provincial Communist Party secretary.

But this week, which was supposed to end with the $37bn listing of Alibaba’s Ant Group financial business, instead saw Mr Xi himself, according to people close to events, pulling the plug on what was meant to be the biggest IPO ever.

The immediate catalyst for the action was at least in part a speech Mr Ma made in October that was critical of Chinese banks and regulators. But in the background, regulators and banks threatened by the rise of nimble new competitors have been lobbying hard to rein the sector in, particularly Ant and its ebullient founder.

“He had become too arrogant,” said the head of Asian economics at one major international bank with close relations with regulators. “They needed to put a leash on the monster that Ant was becoming.”

In retrospect, it is clear that Mr Ma, now 56, has become caught up in a mess that was a long time brewing and is at least partly of his own making.