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Jack Ma, Trump and Xi: How Chinese billionaire flew close to the sun

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November 4, 2021

By Julie Zhu and Kane Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – This was supposed to be Jack Ma’s finest hour: a year ago to the day, his Ant Group was meant to go public in a $37 billion blaze of glory. Instead Beijing reined in his empire, abruptly clipping the wings of corporate China’s biggest star.

Now, to the cautious cheer of investors, the billionaire Alibaba e-commerce tycoon is taking his first tentative steps back on to the global stage with a low-key trip to Europe where he’s cultivating like horticulture.

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It’s a far cry from the height of Ma’s statesman-like powers in 2017 when he travelled to New York to meet President-elect Donald Trump for one-on-one talks in Trump Tower days before inauguration and promised to create a million American jobs.

That high-profile outing had roiled the Chinese government, which first learned of the meeting and jobs pledge along with the rest of the world when Ma held an informal televised Q&A session with reporters in the lobby of the skyscraper, according to four people close to Alibaba with knowledge of the matter and one Beijing government source.

Alibaba’s government relations team was subsequently told by Chinese officials that Beijing was unhappy about Ma meeting Trump without its prior approval, two of the people close to the company said.

Ma’s charitable foundation, which handles his media queries, did not respond to a request for comment.

The State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment. All the sources declined to be named due to sensitivity of the matter.

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The meeting on Jan. 9 came at a time of taut tensions between the two countries after Trump was critical of China during his election campaign, blaming it for the loss of American jobs.

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

The four people close to Alibaba said they believed the meeting was a negative turning point in the relationship between Ma and Beijing. They did not elaborate on their thinking.

Investors are hungry for clues about Ma’s situation: the mere sighting of the businessman on the Spanish island of Mallorca last month, his first trip abroad in over a year, immediately saw Alibaba gain as much as $42 billion in value.

The story of his fall from official favour helps illustrate how rapidly China has transformed under Xi Jinping, as he nears what could be a precedent-breaking third term as leader of the economic powerhouse and exerts greater control over some of its most innovative companies. 

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‘A NATURAL FIRST TARGET’

Authorities cracked down on Ma’s business empire after he gave a speech in Shanghai in October last year accusing financial watchdogs of stifling innovation. Regulators suspended the $37 billion listing of his fintech firm Ant Group two days before the planned debut on Nov. 5, ordered that Ant be restructured and launched antitrust investigations into Ma’s businesses, eventually leading to a record $2.75 billion fine for Alibaba in April.

The clampdown has spread across the private sector, with officials tightening oversight of companies in technology, real estate, gaming, education, cryptocurrencies and finance.

“Given that Jack appeared too provocative, out of step with the new approach to governance espoused by Xi, he was a natural first target to signal that a major change had begun,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based investment advisory firm BDA China and author of a book on Alibaba and Ma.

“Jack was rubbing shoulders regularly with foreign presidents, prime ministers, royalty, celebrities at places like Davos or on his own visits overseas. There was a constant stream of VIP visitors to see him in Hangzhou too.”

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Ma’s global outreach did not end after the Trump meeting, though.

Between 2018 and 2020 he held talks with a host of high-profile figures, including U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, Queen Rania of Jordan, Malaysia’s veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad and then Belgian premier Charles Michel, according to Alibaba’s news portal Alizila and media reports.

At Alibaba’s Hangzhou headquarters, it has a building housing the company’s museum where Ma and his business partner Joe Tsai would take foreign visitors and show them around, according to another person close to Ma.

Tsai did not respond to a request for comment via Alibaba.

Ma had viewed meetings with foreign politicians as “unofficial diplomacy” for China, which he enjoyed doing, the person added.

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Alibaba told Reuters it had a guest reception facility widely known as Pavilion 9 that offered a visual tour of its history and an overview of its businesses. It has hosted a wide variety of guests at the exhibition hall in its headquarters, it added.

The company did not respond to other queries for this story.

‘JUST LIKE YOU AND ME’

In a sign of how life has changed for one of China’s most successful and influential businessmen, Ma requested an audience with at least two people in Xi’s inner circle in the weeks following the blocking of Ant’s listing, but his requests were turned down by both, said two separate sources briefed by those people. 

The billionaire subsequently wrote directly to Xi earlier this year offering to devote the rest of his life to China’s rural education, according to a government source who said the president spoke about the letter at a meeting of the country’s senior leaders in May.

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Reuters could not determine whether Xi approved of or responded to the offer, which has not been previously reported, or precisely when Ma, a former English teacher, penned the missive.

The Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post said last month Ma was visiting Europe on an “agriculture and technology study tour related to environmental issues”, citing a person familiar with his itinerary.

Last week the paper published pictures of Ma wearing a white protective gown and holding flowerpots. It said he would continue touring European companies and research institutions involved in agricultural infrastructure and plant breeding, citing people familiar with his plans.

Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba, played down his long-time associate’s influence in a rare interview about the elusive billionaire with CNBC’s Squawk Box show in June.

“He’s lying low right now. I talk to him every day,” Tsai said. “The idea that Jack has this enormous amount of power, I think that’s not quite right,” he added.

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“He is just like you and me, he’s a normal individual.”

(Reporting by Julie Zhu and Kane Wu in Hong Kong; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee, Paritosh Bansal and Pravin Char)

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U.S. stock futures, oil regain some ground after Omicron battering

Published

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November 29, 2021

By Wayne Cole

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian markets regained a little composure on Monday as investors settled in for a few weeks of uncertainty on whether the Omicron variant would really derail economic recoveries and the tightening plans of some central banks.

Oil prices also bounced $3 a barrel to recoup some of Friday’s shellacking, while the safe haven yen took a breather after its run higher.

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The new variant of concern was found as far afield as Canada and Australia as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.

Britain called an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss developments on the virus, although a South African doctor who had treated cases said symptoms of Omicron were so far mild.

“There is a lot we don’t know about Omicron, but markets have been forced to reassess the global growth outlook until we know more,” said Rodrigo Catril, a market strategist at NAB.

“Pfizer expects to know within two weeks if Omicron is resistant to its current vaccine, others suggest it may take several weeks. Until then markets are likely to remain jittery.”

Trading was erratic early on Monday but there were signs of stabilisation as S&P 500 futures added 0.8% and Nasdaq futures 0.9%.

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Both indices suffered their sharpest fall in months on Friday with travel and airline stocks hit particularly hard.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan eased 0.1% but was off early lows. Likewise, Japan’s Nikkei pared early losses to be down 0.9%.

Bonds gave back some of their gains, with Treasury futures down 11 ticks. The market had rallied sharply as investors priced in the risk of a slower start to rate hikes from the U.S. Federal Reserve, and less tightening by some other central banks.

Two-year Treasury yields edged up to 0.55%, after falling 14 basis points on Friday in the biggest drop since March last year. Fed fund futures had pushed the first rate rise out by a month or so.

The shift in expectations undermined the U.S. dollar, to the benefit of the safe haven Japanese yen and Swiss franc.

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Early Monday the dollar had steadied somewhat at 113.81 yen, after sliding 1.7% on Friday. The dollar index held at 96.190, after Friday’s 0.7% drop.

The euro paused at $1.1294, following its rally from $1.1203 late last week.

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde put a brave face on the latest virus scare, saying the euro zone was better equipped to face the economic impact of a new wave of COVID-19 infections or the Omicron variant.

The economic diary is also busy this week with China’s manufacturing PMIs on Tuesday to offer another update on the health of the Asian giant. The U.S. ISM survey of factories is out on Wednesday, ahead of payrolls on Friday.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speak before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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In commodity markets, oil prices bounced after suffering their largest one-day drop since April 2020 on Friday.

“The move all but guarantees the OPEC+ alliance will suspend its scheduled increase for January at its meeting on 2 December,” wrote analyst at ANZ in a note.

“Such headwinds are the reason it’s been only gradually raising output in recent months, despite demand rebounding strongly.”

Brent rebounded 3.9% to $75.57 a barrel, while U.S. crude rose 4.5% to $71.24.

Gold has so far found little in the way of safe haven demand, leaving it stuck at $1,791 an ounce.

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(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Richard Pullin & Shri Navaratnam)

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Nissan Motor to spend $17.6 billion to accelerate electrification

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November 29, 2021

TOKYO (Reuters) – Nissan Motor Co said on Monday it will spend 2 trillion yen ($17.59 billion) over the next five years to accelerate vehicle electrification as it bets tighter carbon emission restrictions will spur demand for electric cars and hybrids.

Japan’s No. 3 car maker will introduce 23 electrified vehicles by 2030, including 15 electric vehicles (EV), and plans to introduce all solid-state batteries by March 2029, it said in a statement.

Nissan’s deeper push into battery-powered cars comes as consumer demand for such vehicles grows in key auto markets such as China and the United States and as its competitors release new electric vehicles.

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Although still only a small portion of vehicles on the road, global electric car registrations in 2020 grew 41% even as the overall car market contracted by almost a sixth, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Nissan, like other Japanese car makers, however, has yet to commit to completely abandoning fossil-fuel vehicles.

At the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow this month, major car makers, including General Motors and Ford Motor Co, signed on to a declaration that committed them to phase out fossil fuel vehicles by 2040.

($1 = 113.7000 yen)

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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Shares of Macau casino operator Suncity suspended -HKEX

Published

on

November 29, 2021

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Shares of Suncity Group Holdings Ltd were suspended on Monday after its chief executive was believed to be among 11 people arrested by Macau authorities on Sunday over alleged links to cross-border gambling and money laundering.

The South China Morning Post reported that Macau police said on Sunday a 47-year-old businessman surnamed Chau was among those arrested. Alvin Chau is head of Suncity.

Suncity could not be reached for comment. Shares of the company last closed at HK$0.255.

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(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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