Alibaba founder Jack Ma delivers video speech to China’s rural teachers in first public appearance in three months

Jane Zhang
·4-min read

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, delivered a video speech to 100 rural Chinese teachers on Wednesday morning, marking his first public appearance in nearly three months after his controversial speech at a Shanghai financial forum on October 24.

According to a report by the Tianmu News, a news service run by the official Zhejiang Daily Group, Ma said in the video remarks that he has been “learning and thinking” and he concluded that Chinese entrepreneurs must serve the country’s visions of “rural revitalisation and common prosperity”.

The media report included a 50-second video clip of Ma as well as the full transcript of his speech. The Jack Ma Foundation confirmed that Ma took part in the online edition of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event on Wednesday.

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Alibaba Group Holding, the owner of the South China Morning Post, jumped by as much as 11 per cent in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Alibaba Pictures, the distributor of the Oscar-winning Green Book and other movies, advanced 2 per cent, while Alibaba Health Information Technology surged by as much as 12.6 per cent in its biggest intraday percentage jump in six months.

Ma’s reappearance came after weeks of speculation over his whereabouts. He has not been seen in public since the Shanghai speech in late October.

In the video, Ma spoke to rural teachers during the Laba Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. It is considered an auspicious day that signals the start of the Spring Festival period.

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Although Ma retired from his official positions at Alibaba in 2019, the 56-year-old is still widely regarded as a key figurehead for his business empire and the face of China’s private business community.

According to the transcript of Ma’s Wednesday speech, he said China has realised a complete eradication of poverty and is revitalising the countryside in a “new development stage” of “common prosperity” for the nation.

“To support and serve rural teachers well, to do a good job of assisting education authorities, to improve education in rural areas, and to work hard for rural revitalisation and common prosperity … I think that’s the responsibility of our generation of entrepreneurs,” Ma said.

The video excerpt posted online by Tianmu News includes clips of Ma inspecting a rural school near Hangzhou, where Alibaba is based, on January 10.

The Rural Teachers Initiative was established by Ma in 2015 to support teachers working in the Chinese countryside. For the past five years, Ma has invited rural teachers to the tropical island of Hainan for a ceremony to present 100 of the most outstanding with a cash grant of 100,000 yuan (US$14,260) each to support rural education.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Ma said he would have liked to invite the teachers to Hainan again this year but had to hold a virtual meeting instead due to the coronavirus.

“When the coronavirus pandemic is over, we definitely should find a time to invite all of you to Sanya, and we can gather face to face at that time,” Ma, who was wearing a casual sweater and sneakers, said in the video.

The Alibaba founder has been out of public sight since he criticised China’s financial regulatory system in the Shanghai speech. Following those remarks, Ma was summoned by China’s regulators and an initial public offering by Alibaba affiliate Ant Group was suspended at the last minute.

Separately, China’s market regulator launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba on December 24.

“The key message that Jack Ma wants to express via this public appearance is that … Alibaba is still operating normally and the government has not specifically suppressed the company,” said Li Chengdong, chief executive of e-commerce consultancy Dolphin Think Tank. “This is also a message to the capital market that the Chinese government does not target privately owned companies.”

The Jack Ma Rural Teachers Initiative and Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award also offers three years of cash and professional growth support for recipient teachers so they can enhance their teaching skills and help rural children lead “happy and healthy lives”.

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