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China tech

Alibaba shares jump as Jack Ma resurfaces after 3-month absence

Tech billionaire speaks by video to Chinese rural teachers

In what appeared to be a livestream, Jack Ma expressed regret that a teacher awards ceremony he usually attends was being held online due to COVID-19. (Screenshot from Tianmu News)

HONG KONG -- Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba Group Holding, surfaced on Wednesday in his first public appearance since a speech in October that led to the suspension of a huge initial public offering for Ant Group, its financial services affiliate.

Alibaba's Hong Kong-listed shares jumped as much as 10.6% during afternoon trading after the video's midday release. The stock closed up 8.5% at HK$265 while other group companies and Chinese tech shares posted strong gains.

In the 50-second video clip published on the Zhejiang Newspaper Media Holding Group website, Ma, in a casual dark blue sweatshirt, addressed a meeting of village teachers.

In what appeared to be a livestream Ma, a former English teacher, expressed regret that because of the coronavirus pandemic he could not meet the village teachers who were to have gathered for a ceremony in Sanya on the island province of Hainan.

In recent months, Ma said, "My colleagues and I have been studying and thinking, and we have become more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare."

The technology tycoon has long been enthusiastic about promoting rural education, promising to focus on the area when he retired as chairman of Alibaba in 2019. Ma, for some time, has regularly greeted rural teachers for an award ceremony held around this time of year.

A spokesperson for Ma's foundation confirmed that Ma joined the annual award ceremony on Wednesday.

Ma has been out of public view since October, fueling speculation that he had been detained as different government agencies announced probes and restrictions on Alibaba and Ant. Some media have reported that he was advised not to leave the mainland.

Ant and Alibaba both are based in Hangzhou, Zheijang's provincial capital, but it is unclear where the video was filmed.

The room from which Ma apparently spoke was decorated in Chinese style, with a traditional wooden table and a large ink wash painting of a village scene.

A vase with fresh flowers, a pile of books and a sculpture of a person sitting on a scarlet couch are seen on the table. One of the books is a translated version of "A World History of Art," by British art historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming.

Alibaba lost nearly one-third of its market value in the weeks after Ma's Oct. 24 speech in which he likened traditional banks to pawnshops and labeled the existing financial regulatory framework an "old people's club." Ma left Alibaba's board, his last formal role, last September though he remains the controlling shareholder of Ant.

Days after the speech, regulators abruptly suspended Ant's IPO, which was expected to raise up to $39.6 billion in a dual listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong. China's market regulator also launched an antimonopoly investigation against Alibaba and fined the company for failing to report a previous acquisition and pricing irregularities.

Ma, who had been China's richest individual until the speech, lost billions of dollars in personal wealth due to the slump in Alibaba shares, pushing him to the No. 4 position on the Hurun Report's rankings of the country's wealthiest individuals.

A series of speeches and the regulatory moves against Alibaba and other internet companies over the past few months have signaled Chinese authorities' intentions to rein in the growing power of tech giants whose services have penetrated almost every aspect of life in the country.

The shift in the government stance hit shares of major Chinese internet companies, including Tencent Holdings, Meituan and JD.com, as investors anticipated slower growth in a tougher regulatory environment.

On Wednesday, Tencent rose 3.7%, JD.com gained 3.3% and Meituan 9.1%. Alibaba Health Information Technology rose 17.1% while Alibaba Pictures closed up 3%. The Hang Seng Tech Index climbed 5.4%.

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