Jack Ma is indisputably the richest Communist in China. Last week, Chinese state media outed the founder of US$400 billion Alibaba as a member of the Chinese Communist Party, implying that China’s renowned capitalist and business guru must sign up to and get aboard Xi Jinping’s latest drive to exert influence over technology companies as well as their finances and operations both inside and outside China.

Comrade Ma was listed by the People’s Daily as one of the 100 top contributors to China’s “Reform and Opening-up”, noting he belongs to the party.

Ma’s meteoric rise to super-riches took advantage of Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization push known as “reform and opening-up” that began 40 years ago. He built a global e-commerce empire from scratch when he founded Alibaba in 1999.

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An undated file photo shows Xi, then party chief of Zhejiang province where Alibaba is based, inspecting Ma’s company. Photo: Weibo

Chinese youth revere Ma as a symbol of private sector-led transformation, and, most of Ma’s fans and observers might have thought, until the revelation from the People’s Daily about his party membership, that one secret to his success was to maintain a respectful distance from politics, and in particular from the ruling Communist Party.

Speaking at a trade fair in early November, Ma suggested that concerns from bureaucrats about technology were “impeding innovation”. The moderator, chairman of the state-owned Sinochem, interjected that “the government is not necessarily bad, OK.”

“[Ma’s] messianic image looks heretical to ideologists proselytizing the personality cult of Xi. The party has also become uncomfortable with the social influence companies like Alibaba accrued over their legions of users. Thus the government has moved to increase the role of party groups inside private conglomerates, and is mulling parachuting directors onto the boards of tech outfits,” wrote Reuters commentator Pete Sweeney.

But Sweeney cautioned that knocking Ma down a peg or two or interfering with his online retail conglomerate could risk sparking a schism, worrying investors and disillusioning a generation of young Chinese entrepreneurs.

Ma, who has announced his intention to step down as Alibaba’s executive chairman in 2019, has frequently expressed support for the party and manifested his allegiance.

Rumors have it that Ma pledged during a meeting when Xi summoned all prominent business leaders of non-state owned enterprises to Zhongnanhai that he would surrender AliPay – one of his cash cows excluded from Alibaba’s New York-listed arm – to the country without any second thought if the nation and party need it.

Ma joined the party as early as during his university days, before he became an English teacher at a college in Zhejiang, and well before he founded Alibaba, according to the South China Morning Post.

Last week, an op-ed that appeared in the Hong Kong broadsheet – owned by Alibaba since 2016 – noted that the revelation by the People’s Daily was “innocuous”, stressing that this piece of information had been public knowledge since at least 2015.

A senior editor who penned the article said party affiliation could just be a fact of life and a matter of practicality for advancement in China. He went on to take a potshot at the Western media outlets’ “breathless reports suggesting scandal and ominous portent”.

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Alibaba announced in December 2015 its purchase of the 115-year-old SCMP. Photo: Asia Times

“It doesn’t automatically make [party members] all card-carrying fanatics in Mao suits hiding behind the Bamboo Curtain… to see [party affiliation] as being synonymous with political stance and skulduggery smacks of ignorance and prejudice,” noted the article headlined “Jack Ma is a Communist Party member – so what?”

Last week, AFP contacted the SCMP for comment on what Ma’s CCP link would have on its editorial operations, a request condemned by the newspaper as “scurrilous muckraking”. The newspaper also reiterated that Ma had never sat on the SCMP board or had anything to do with its editorial content or daily operations.