He was the boss of a tech giant. Now he studies fish and rice.
After appearing to fall out of favor with China’s leadership following a 2020 speech criticizing financial regulation, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
generally kept a low profile.
Out of the public eye, the 58-year-old multi-billionaire, who stepped down as executive chairman of Alibaba in 2019, has quietly built a life of serious research into the world’s food problems, echoing Microsoft Corp.
the work of co-founder Bill Gates on global health.
In the past year, Mr. Ma a Japanese laboratory specializing in farmed tuna – where the staff did not recognize him – and a Dutch university to learn about sustainable food production.
This week Mr. Ma back to Hangzhou, Alibaba’s headquarters. On Tuesday, following a long-running regulatory push from Beijing to rein in China’s powerful tech companies, Alibaba said it planned to split itself into six independently run companies that could seek separate IPOs.
Mr. Ma did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent through the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba.
The attention-loving executive’s absence from public events in recent years has drawn comment from Tesla, among others from Inc
Elon Musk, who wondered aloud in September 2021: “Where is Jack Ma?”
But Mr. Ma never completely disappeared. He was spotted several times in China in 2021 and on May 10, 2022, attended an internal meeting at Alibaba in Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, according to staff who saw him and a report in state media.
That month was the last time Mr. Ma’s presence in mainland China was confirmed until Monday, when he resurfaced in Hangzhou and visited a school to discuss topics such as artificial intelligence with teachers, the school said.
His return comes as Beijing grapples with a battered economy and tries to revive business confidence after years of regulatory constraints and Covid-19 restrictions.
According to people who know him, Mr. Ma spent some time in Japan during his absence from China. Despite tense diplomatic ties with Beijing, the country has become a popular destination for wealthy Chinese who today find their homeland less welcoming.
A local magazine reported on Friday that he lived part of the time in a house in Hakone, a venerable hot-water resort about 50 miles from Tokyo. An employee of a nearby sushi shop told The Wall Street Journal that an aide to the mogul often stopped by to pick up takeout orders of such delicacies as sea urchin and fatty tuna, but the employee said the store had not been accepting orders from him lately. has received.
Mr. Ma also traveled extensively during this period, often to pursue his interests in food and related fields, according to people who know him. A person who spoke to him said that Mr. Ma often commented on his admiration for Japanese food and wondered why China couldn’t produce something similar.
In a speech in 2017, Mr. Ma that technologies such as cloud computing and big data could help farmers in China. He called the modernization of agriculture “a bright spot and an important growth pillar for China’s economic development” in the next two to three decades, and during a 2019 appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he said that if he were to start a new company could start, he would go into farming.
Last July 2, he visited Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. The university said Mr Ma would “dedicate his time and efforts fully to agriculture and food sustainability, including in the Gobi Desert,” which spans Mongolia and China.
A few months later, on Oct. 17, he toured Kindai University’s Aquaculture Research Institute in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture next to Osaka, according to a university official and a photo from the event. The university’s researchers are known for figuring out how to breed the unruly bluefin tuna, a step toward creating a stable supply of the fish beloved by sushi fans.
Mr. Ma was part of a delegation of foreign businessmen who visited the fish farm and calmly listened to explanations without identifying himself as an internet billionaire, the university official said. Staff on site did not recognize him, but days later, senior staff members saw a group photo of the delegation and realized they might have had a famous visitor. “So we went through the names signed by the visitors, and his name was there,” the official recalled.
In January it was Bangkok’s turn. People familiar with the trip said Mr. Ma had met Dhanin Chearavanont, the senior chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group, a leading Thai food conglomerate.
The two billionaires discussed ways to address food shortages and Mr. Ma asked his hosts about rice farming technology in Thailand, according to one person at the meeting and another person familiar with it.
Mr. Ma was also photographed on the trip attending a Thai boxing match and playfully rolling up his sleeves to strike a boxing stance.
That was one of the many times Mr. Ma’s leisure activities attracted attention. A local news outlet on the Spanish island of Mallorca saw Mr. Mon there in June 2022, and his visit to Spain at the time was confirmed by a person who helped with his schedule.
In February, Chinese visitors to Melbourne, Australia, saw their famous compatriot there, and soon after made a stop in Fiji, according to a social media post from Fiji’s tourism authority.
“I realize one thing – that all the things you learn from the books and the things you learn from the other people… may not be true,” Mr. Ma said in a speech in 2017, recalling his first trip abroad in 1980 when he visited Australia. “The world is so interesting, the world is so unique and you have to go experience it for yourself.”
—George Nishiyama and Miho Inada contributed to this article.
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