Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- Twenty-one years after his death, Japanese master painter Kaii Higashiyama must have turned in his grave earlier this month when the Chinese government used one of his paintings to send a stern warning to the richest man in the country.
On the evening of Nov. 2, moments after Jack Ma Yun, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, was summoned by Chinese authorities for questioning, a cryptic column was posted on Xinhua's official WeChat account.
The article -- headlined, "Don't speak thoughtlessly, don't do as you please, people can't act on their free will" -- made no mention of Ma. But it was accompanied by a striking blue painting of Higashiyama's that shows a white cloud in the sky shaped like a horse.
In Chinese, "Ma" means horse, "Yun" means cloud. It was clear who the article was pointing at.
Some of the sentences were boldfaced for emphasis. The last one went like this:
"There is a price behind everything. If you don't have capital, don't do whatever you want."
The 1972 painting is titled "Fleecy Clouds."
Speculation quickly spread that the column, which hints that the horse could be blown away like a cloud, must have been published with the blessing of China's top leadership.
As a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Ma is required to show absolute loyalty to the system.
But the 56-year-old entrepreneur made remarks deemed to challenge the intentions of the party's Central Committee, led by President Xi Jinping.
Speaking at a financial conference in Shanghai on Oct. 24, the outspoken billionaire criticized Chinese regulators, saying the country's old financial regulations are a drag on technological innovation.
"China does not have a systemic financial risk problem," Ma said at the Bund Summit. "Chinese finance basically does not carry risk; rather, the risk comes from lacking a system.
"Good innovation is not afraid of regulation but is afraid of outdated regulation. We shouldn't use the way to manage a train station to regulate an airport."
Ma also took aim at Chinese banks, saying they operate with a "pawnshop" mentality.
Ma was especially daring given that he was speaking in front of Wang Qishan, the vice president who for years has been at the center of China's financial administration.
Ma's criticism was also directed at Vice Premier Liu He, a Xi aide who oversees China's macroeconomic policy. His remarks, naturally, were reported to the top echelons.
Ma has pioneered e-commerce and cashless commerce. But his remarks were careless, and he ended up stepping on the tiger's tail.
The day after Xinhua used Higashiyama's painting to make a point, the planned initial public offering of Alibaba's financial arm, Ant Group, in Shanghai and Hong Kong was shelved.
The last-minute delay of what was to be the biggest fundraising in history is the result of the Xi regime prioritizing domestic issues rather than the international credibility of the Chinese market.
Ant Group is unrivaled in scale. More than 1 billion people use Alipay, its core smartphone payment service. It offers a range of other services as well, including loans, cash advances and credit assessments.
Critics, meanwhile, have said it presents a danger to China's existing financial order.
For his part, Ma has stayed away from politics. Unlike the founders of Tencent, Baidu and other tech giants, he is not a member of China's "two sessions," the annual gathering of the national legislature and the top political advisory body.
That said, his business empire's rapid growth, to a certain extent, has been protected by his political connections. Ma has relatively close relationships with former President Jiang Zemin, who led the so-called Shanghai faction, his right-hand man former Vice President Zeng Qinghong and the people around them.
Alibaba is a private company born in Zhejiang Province, a stone's throw from Shanghai.
The key to understanding Ma's current stumble, however, may lie in his relationship with Xi.
Xi spent many years in Zhejiang as an official, gradually solidifying his political footing.
Xi's subordinates from that time moved into key positions across the country once their boss took power and are called the "Zhejiang faction."
But Ma is not known to have cozied up to them. Perhaps for two reasons. He knew the risks involved in getting too close to politics. He was also confident of his abilities and didn't feel the need.
"Money and political power cannot exist together," Ma once said. "One is the powder keg, while the other is the match. If they both exist, an explosion will occur."
Ever the merchant, Ma always had a good intuition about how the tides were changing.
At a relatively young age, he decided to retire from day-to-day management. Each time he thought he was becoming too high-profile, Ma would step back.
But each time, the spotlight shone brighter and he could not disappear.
In May 2013, two months after Xi assumed the post of president, Ma formally retired as Alibaba CEO to devote himself to his job as company chairman.
In March 2018, Xi pushed through a revision of the national constitution, scrapping the limit of two five-year terms for Chinese presidents and paving the way for his own extended reign.
Xi's power play prompted Ma to rush a decision. Half a year later, Ma declared that he "will retire in one year's time." Ma actually stepped down as chairman in September 2019. He also retired from the board this September.
But this time, Ma looks to have failed to keep an appropriate distance from Chinese politics.
A clue into Xi's thinking was visible last week during an inspection tour of Jiangsu Province.
Visiting Nantong Museum, the president took in exhibits introducing Zhang Jian, founder of the museum and a Chinese industrialist and educator in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The museum showed how Zhang ran businesses that benefited the nation, developed education and took part in public welfare activities.
Hailing Zhang as "a model of all Chinese private entrepreneurs," Xi said the museum and Zhang's former residence should be turned into a base for patriotic education, "which can enhance the sense of social responsibility of private entrepreneurs," Xinhua reported him as saying.
Just ten days or so after Ma was questioned by authorities, the Chinese president was urging private entrepreneurs not to be selfish.
Another noteworthy point about Xi's Jiangsu tour is that he visited Yangzhou, former President Jiang's hometown, for the first time since he became China's top leader in 2012.
Six years ago, Xi made a big splash by inspecting Zhenjiang, an ancient city south of Yangzhou and just across the Yangtze River.
The name Zhenjiang could have disturbing political overtones. Zhen means to calm, jiang means river. It could be read as "bringing Jiang under control." That's why even the name of a bridge over the Yangtze River completed in 2005 to link Zhenjiang and Yangzhou avoided using the name.
Six years ago, China was still reeling from the political storm that had raged due to Xi's anti-corruption campaign, seeing Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, placed under investigation for corruption.
The committee is the party's top decision-making body. Jiangsu was the power base of Zhou as well as of former President Jiang. Xi's visit to Zhenjiang six years ago reflected his determination to break the rule of party elders with his crackdown on corruption.
Late last month, there were no personnel changes involving the promotion of potential successors to Xi at the fifth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee, further clearing the way for Xi to extend his reign.
The visit to Yangzhou, a politically sensitive locale, almost looked like a victory lap, commemorating Xi's triumph in his power struggle with Jiang and other party elders.