Jack Ma has been spotted for the first time in months as it emerged he has slipped to fifth on the list of China's wealthiest after $20billion was wiped off his fortune amid a government crackdown on his business empire.
The Alibaba founder, who was targeted after he dared criticise China's financial regulators, is now worth an estimated $39.6billion.
Zhong Shanshan, a journalist-turned-bottled water tycoon, is now top with a fortune estimated at $60.5 billion, according to the newly-published Hurun Rich List.
Ma has been keeping a low profile in recent months since he publicly criticised China's regulatory system in a speech last year, but last week made his first trip abroad since the scandal erupted - holidaying in Spain and the Netherlands.
The billionaire was pictured departing his superyacht off the coast of Mallorca and taking a low-key walk through the streets of Santa Ponsa last week, before being spotted again it the Netherlands on Wednesday (October 27).
Jack Ma now ranks fifth on a list of China's richest people after seeing his fortune drop by $20billion in the last 12 months (pictured on holiday last week in Mallorca)
The Diario de Mallorca newspaper said Ma was seen on October 20 in the port of Andratx buying home decor at a local store.
The superyacht Zen has been moving along Mallorca's northwestern coast for the past few days and was in Andratx on Tuesday last week.
It dropped anchor the following day near the beach town of Santa Ponsa, but a Reuters cameraman could only see smaller support boats returning to the superyacht from the shore empty, with Ma nowhere to be seen.
Without citing any sources, El Pais newspaper said Ma had been visiting Spain's Balearic Islands since October 16, accompanied by various Chinese business people and his security detail.
The sleek five-deck, vertical-bowed motor yacht, measuring 289 ft, can accommodate up to 16 guests and a crew of 25, according to the Superyacht Times edition. It was built in the Netherlands and delivered in April.
Ma, a globe-trotter not known to shy away from the limelight before falling out with regulators, retired as Alibaba's chairman in 2019.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, reported on Tuesday that Ma was in Spain for a study tour on agriculture and technology related to environmental issues after spending 'private time' with his family in Hong Kong.
He was then seen touring greenhouses in the Netherlands, with the South China Morning Post - which he owns - saying he was there to research 'agriculture technology' as part of a 'personal visit'.
Ma was targeted after he gave a speech criticising regulators, but crackdown now appears to be easing as he takes first vacation since scandal broke (pictured, his yacht in Mallorca)
Alibaba shares rose 9 per cent off the back of Ma's public reappearance, along with reports that the company will produce a new kind of computer chip, though is still a far-cry away from where it was before the crisis began.
Marco van Herk, commercial director at Dutch flower company Anthura, said on Wednesday he had been expecting to give a tour to a group of Chinese business executives earlier this week.
'We were totally surprised when Jack Ma stepped out of the car,' Van Herk told Reuters. 'He was very interested on a personal level. We talked about how they (orchids) could smell great and were beautiful at the same time.'
Ma wanted to know all the details about the cultivation of the flowers. 'We also focus on robustness, which is right up his alley because you get into how to offer a plant online packaging, rather than out of a store.'
Ma visited several other business and research centres in the Netherlands, including the World Horti Center.
He was photographed in a baseball cap, wearing a white protective gown and holding flowerpots, while in another picture he is seen in jeans and a hoodie.
The billionaire, who retired as Alibaba's chairman in 2019, will continue touring European companies and research institutions involved in agricultural infrastructure and plant breeding, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper.
Ma believed combining the technology he researched with Alibabaâs cloud computing, big data analysis and artificial intelligence could help modernise Chinese agriculture, people familiar with the trip told SCMP.
On Sept. 1, photographs of Ma visiting greenhouses in eastern Zhejiang province, home to both Alibaba and Ant, went viral on Chinese social media.
The next day, Alibaba said it would invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) by 2025 in support of 'common prosperity', becoming the latest corporate giant to pledge support for the wealth sharing initiative driven by President Xi Jinping.
Ma has been beset by legal and financial woes ever since he spoke out against China's financial regulators in a speech in October 2020.
It came ahead of the stock market launch of Ant Pay, Ma's financial technology firm that was set to shift power away from traditional banks.
Ant Pay was due to hit the market with a value of $37billion, the largest ever initial public offering which would have cemented Ma's position as China's richest man.
But, in the wake of the speech, the sale was suspended amid news that China's regulators were looking into the business, while Ma vanished for three months in an absence that has never been officially explained.
Ma did finally reappear, in January the following year, only to see his Alibaba web store hit with a $2.8billion fine for anti-competitive practices.
Zhong Shanshan, a former journalist turned bottled water tycoon, now tops the rich-list with a fortune estimated at some $60billion
Ant Pay was subsequently forced to restructure its business model to act more like a traditional bank, wiping out a huge portion of its value.
Bloomberg now estimates the value of Alibaba Group Holding - an umbrella company that includes all of Ma's businesses - has dropped $344billion in the last 12 months, in the biggest stock market plunge on record.
By contrast, China's new richest man Zhong keeps a very low profile with almost nothing known about his private life.
A school dropout who worked for a time as a construction worker, he went into journalism in 1983 where he covered agriculture for the Zhejiang Daily.
After a five-year stint at the paper, he began trying out various business ventures including founding his own newspaper, growing mushrooms and selling curtains.
He founded Yangshengtang, a health company, in 1993 and then beverage brand Nongfu Spring in 1996.
Yangshengtang later transformed into pharmaceutical firm Beijing Wantai, and Zhong's wealth is largely based on controlling stakes in Wantai and his water brand.
Wantai, which developed a Covid test that was granted emergency approval in the US and is developing a vaccine, went public in April last year.
That was followed by the $1billion stock market debut of Nongfu in September, which brought Zhong to the world's attention.
Both companies have increased substantially in value since, and Zhong's fortunes have swelled along with them.
Pony Ma, the owner of gaming firm Tencent, dropped from second on the list to fourth after his company was also hit by a state crackdown
Pony Ma, boss of gaming giant and WeChat owner Tencent, dropped two spots to fourth as Chinese restrictions on video gaming reduced his fortune by 19 per cent.
Second place was taken by TikTok founder Zhang Yiming.
The Hurun Research Institute, which compiles the list, said that for the first time the real estate sector had no names in the Top 10.
The sector's biggest loser was Xu Jiayin, founder of deeply troubled property giant Evergrande Group.
Xu had topped the list in 2017 and was fifth last year. But he has fallen to 70th with a nearly 70 percent reduction in his wealth to $11.3 billion, according to Hurun.
A liquidity crunch at Evergrande has hammered investor sentiment and rattled the country's crucial real estate market, while fanning fears of a possible contagion in the wider economy.
Chinese authorities have told Xu to use his dwindling personal wealth to alleviate the embattled company's debt crisis, according to media reports this week.
However, the overall number of individuals in China worth at least two billion yuan ($310 million) grew by 520 to a total of 2,918, Hurun said.
Growth in the electric vehicle market, in particular, fuelled the rising fortunes of several entrepreneurs, according to the list.