Beijing forces elite Jack Ma academy to suspend new registrations

Jack Ma’s elite business academy has been forced to suspend enrollment of new students following pressure from Beijing as authorities tighten their grip on China’s tech billionaire’s empire.

Hupan University, an executive education program known to be as difficult to access as Harvard, has suspended a freshman class that was due to start at the end of March, according to people close to the institution. It was not clear when new students would be able to enroll, they added.

Hupan’s targeting is the strongest indication to date that the crackdown on Ma’s interests is expanding beyond his activities to encompass other activities through which he projects influence.

Regulators sabotaged the Initial public offering of $ 37 billion Of Ma’s payment business, Ant Group, at the last minute in November and the following month, launched an antitrust investigation into its e-commerce company Alibaba.

The entrepreneur has not been seen in public since October, when he publicly criticized Chinese regulators and state banks, bar a brief video appearance in January.

Ma led a group of industry and tech titans to establish Hupan in his hometown of Hangzhou in 2015 with the aim of teaching entrepreneurship, business management and corporate culture to a group restricted to high performing people each year.

“We want Hupan to be a candidate for 300 years,” said Ma, who is the president of Hupan, when welcoming the first group of students six years ago.

Hupan quickly became one of the most prestigious business schools in China, with students having the opportunity to take courses taught by Ma. Foreign entrepreneurs such as Travis Kalanick, founder of the Uber Group, also gave lectures at the ‘school.

But the Chinese Communist Party has grown increasingly suspicious of the billionaire’s weight and influence in society, according to people familiar with the matter, paving the way for the movement against his university.

“The government believes that Hupan has the potential to organize the best Chinese entrepreneurs to work towards a common goal set by Jack Ma instead of the Communist Party,” said a person close to the school. “It cannot be allowed.”

People familiar with the situation warn that although Hupan is under pressure, classes are underway for existing students and the school is not ready to close permanently.

Beijing also pressured Alibaba to sell some of its holdings in major Chinese private media groups, as officials fear Ma and the company have tried to influence public opinion, people familiar with the matter said.

Jack Ma’s elite Hupan University in Hangzhou City © Reuters

Some senior officials in Beijing began to view the school as a modern version of Donglin Academy, one person said. The private academy was a powerful area of ​​debate in the 17th century that spawned like-minded thinkers who ultimately influenced politics and weakened the government of the Ming Dynasty.

“Hupan is like an elite community, it is one of the [the authorities’] main targets, ”said another person who worked with Ma. The person added that while Beijing could see Hupan as a way for Ma to build an even more powerful clientele, the school was focused on entrepreneurship.

Ma has made education his flagship initiative since stepping down from his official role at Alibaba in 2019. While his charity has donated funds to rural education, Hupan is at the center of his efforts.

Its program lasts three years, with students visiting the Hupan campus every two months for classes and networking. Prospective students must have founded a business, paid corporate tax for three years, employ more than 30 people, and generate at least RMB 30 million in annual income. The application deadline is November with the new class starting at the end of March.

Famous Hupan alumni include prominent Chinese tech entrepreneurs such as Jean Liu, president of the Didi ride-sharing group, and Shen Peng, founder of the online insurance platform Waterdrop.

The school spent 580 million rmb ($ 89 million) on a new campus that opened last year, according to local media. Designed by famous architect Kris Yao, the school’s circular structure includes ponds, water lilies and a pavilion, resembling the campus of US tech group Apple in Silicon Valley. Ma hopes to build a second Hupan campus in southwestern Yunnan province.

Guards prevented an FT reporter from entering the campus during an attempted visit last month.

Beijing’s crackdown on Ma’s interests has yet to personally target the billionaire. His friends and associates say that although he has adopted an unusually low-key lifestyle, Ma remains free to move and works to resolve Ant’s regulatory issues.

Hupan said the classes were functioning normally but did not respond to requests for further comment.

Nian Liu in Beijing and Tom Mitchell in Singapore contributed reporting.

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