Jack Ma has been spotted drinking a Coke in a Melbourne hotel on a “personal trip”, in a rare sighting of the elusive tech billionaire who all but disappeared after falling foul of Chinese authorities.
The founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba was one of the world’s most high-profile, globe-trotting business figures until 2020, when he was caught up in President Xi Jinping’s brutal tech crackdown after criticising the Chinese Communist Party.
Since then he has largely disappeared from public life and is believed to mostly be living in Tokyo, with only occasional sightings of the well-known businessman.
According to Chinese state media reports, Mr Ma was spotted at a hotel in Melbourne on Sunday in a viral photo.
The Australian confirmed the photo was legitimate and that Mr Ma had since left Australia.
“It was just a personal trip,” a source told the newspaper.
It marks Mr Ma’s first visit in six years to Australia — a country with an exceptionally special connection to the entrepreneur due to his decades-long friendship with a family in the city of Newcastle.
The friendship began in the 1980s when Ken Morley, an electrical engineer and blue-sky thinker, travelled with his family to the People’s Republic of China as the country was opening up to the West.
The Morleys travelled across the country with the Australia-China Friendship Society, where they met a young Mr Ma who would ride his bike from Hangzhou to practice speaking English with tourists.
Mr Ma started a conversation with Ken’s older son, David, by West Lake and began a pen-pal correspondence upon the Morleys’ return to Australia.
Ken would reportedly correct the letters to improve Mr Ma’s English.
In 1985, the Morleys hosted Mr Ma in Australia, overcoming treacherous bureaucratic and diplomatic red tape to bring a Chinese national into the country.
Mr Ma now considers that visit to Newcastle a turning point in his life, as it “totally changed my future”.
The friendship continued over the years, with the Novocastrian family frequently visiting Mr Ma and his family in China.
During a philanthropic visit in 2017, Ma expressed his gratitude for his time in the country during his youth.
“The culture, the landscape, and most importantly, its people had a profound positive impact on my view of the world at that time,” he said.
Mr Ma had returned to Australia to establish the Ma & Morley Scholarship program with the University of Newcastle, a tribute to his late friend.
The program, which received an almost $30 million contribution from Mr Ma, provides scholarships to Australian students.
“Dad would be extremely proud of Jack’s commitment to making a difference to students in our hometown and so touched that their close friendship has led to this program, which will transform the futures of hundreds of the University of Newcastle students, to hopefully do good things in the world,” David Morley said of the partnership.
Facing the wrath of Beijing, Mr Ma stepped down as executive chairman of Alibaba in 2019 and later withdrew from its board of directors, but continues to serve as a lifelong “Alibaba Partner”.
In January this year he has also ceded control of fintech company Ant Group, reducing his voting rights from more than 50 per cent to 6.2 per cent.
Mr Ma, once China’s richest person with an estimated wealth of $71 billion, has had tens of billions wiped off his fortune as a result — dropping him several places down the country’s rich list.
He has recently been spotted in Tokyo and regional areas of Japan and Thailand, where he reportedly toured foodie hot spots and even participated in a Muay Thai match.
However, this time around Mr Ma, who has developed a reputation for sharing his every move on social media while jetsetting around the world, is seemingly travelling incognito.