SHANGHAI/TOKYO -- Jack Ma Yun, founder and chairman of Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba Group Holding, was identified as a member of the Communist Party of China by the party-run People's Daily on Monday.
The newspaper published an article that day naming several entrepreneurs, including Ma, whom the government plans to honor for their contribution to reform and opening up of China's economy.
Ma has been introduced as a Communist Party member before at government-hosted events. But he is believed to have never acknowledged the fact in public.
"Ma, 54, a CPC member, has been a huge driving force for domestic demand," the Communist Party of China's central committee was quoted by the People's Daily as saying.
"Under his leadership, Alibaba ranks among the top 10 global companies in terms of market value, making China a leading player in the international e-commerce industry, internet finance and cloud computing, spawning a large number of entrepreneurs and startups," the committee's selection body said in a statement, according to the paper.
Jack Ma has been a party member since he was a university student, although he has chosen not to publicize the affiliation. However, people close to him knew about it. In the website of an association of Zhejiang business people, which was set up in 2015, he was introduced as the group's chief and a party member.
Some suspect a motive behind the disclosure. "The Communist Party apparently wants to use his popularity to boost its own," said Kokichiro Mio, analyst at NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. Mio suspects that public support for the party is waning, increasingly being viewed as an elite organization detached from the rest of the public.
The CPC has only 90 million members in a country of nearly 1.4 billion. It is not clear whether Ma is just a rank-and-file member or will be promoted to the 200-member central committee, which is led by President Xi Jinping.
Ma is something of a folk hero in the country, a man who created one of the world's largest business empires from scratch, without relying on Communist Party connections, Mio said. "People may feel a little disappointed now that they know Ma is a party member after all."
Ma ranks in stature among other business leaders like SoftBank Group's Masayoshi Son. He personally promised U.S. President Donald Trump to create 1 million jobs in the U.S., a pledge he later rescinded after the U.S. escalated its trade war with China.
Some sense irony in the timing of the list's release, as it coincides with the coming 40th anniversary of the reform movement initiated by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in December 1978. Deng reversed the country's fixation with communist dogma, encouraged private-sector initiatives, and opened China to foreign investment.
Under Xi, the party is reasserting its control over the private sector, which is championed by people like Jack Ma, Mio said.