He obliquely chided Chinese regulators for stifling innovation, and said that Chinese banks suffered from a “pawnshop mentality” given that banks, like the informal lenders of yore, still relied on a system of “pledges and collateral.” This wasn’t all bad, Ma granted. “In the old days,” he pointed out, “a pawnshop was an advanced idea. Had it not been for innovations such as pledges and collateral, there would be no financial institutions today, and the Chinese economy would not have developed over the past 40 years to such a point now.”
But the listening cadres were infuriated. On Nov. 2, Ma was summoned by Chinese authorities for questioning. The next day, the $37 billion IPO of Alibaba’s fintech arm Ant Financial—touted as a record-breaking offering—was nixed by China’s securities watchdog despite it earlier having received a green light. By late December, regulators had instructed Ant Group to restructure its operations to adhere to new anti-monopoly rules, shaving billions off its valuation.
Then, late last week, Ma was replaced by another Alibaba executive for the televised final episode of a business talent contest he had been helming, with his picture scrubbed from the gallery of judges. Ma has now not been seen in public for at least two months. An Alibaba spokeswoman declined to comment on his whereabouts when contacted by TIME.