Jack Ma will step down as president of the elite business academy he founded six years ago, according to people familiar with the matter, as Beijing cracks down on the billionaire’s influence across Chinese society.
Hupan University, an executive training programme that is reputedly as hard to get into as Harvard University, will also restructure its educational programme and has changed its name, the people said.
Ma’s retreat from the academy, located in his home city of Hangzhou, comes as Chinese regulators have piled pressure on the founder of ecommerce group Alibaba and his business empire.
Ma, one of the country’s most high-profile entrepreneurs, has largely disappeared from public view since giving a speech in October that criticised regulators and state-owned banks.
Antitrust regulators fined Alibaba a record $2.8bn fine for monopolistic practices last month and Ant Group, Ma’s fintech company, has been ordered to shrink its business and restructure since its $37bn initial public offering was squashed last November.
The changes at Hupan suggest Beijing’s effort to limit Ma’s influence continues despite the entrepreneur making a public appearance at an Alibaba event this month.
One person close to Hupan said Ma would not hold any high-level official title at the restructured organisation. But several people cautioned that Ma was keen to remain connected to the school and may give lectures in the future.
Authorities worried that Ma was building a powerful network at Hupan that could be at odds with the Communist party’s objectives, according to a person close to the school. Some high-ranking Chinese officials view Hupan as a modern-day version of the Donglin Academy, a 17th-century educational institution that served as a debating ground for thinkers who influenced politics and weakened the Ming Dynasty government.
Hupan was set up to teach a select group entrepreneurship, business management and corporate culture. “We want Hupan to run for 300 years,” Ma said in 2015, when he welcomed the first batch of students.
Hupan last week changed its name on its website and social media accounts to Hupan Innovation Center. Videos on Chinese social media also showed a worker using a blowtorch to remove Hupan University’s name from a large stone sign in front of its campus.
The name change fits into a government campaign to ensure only licensed educational institutions can use the title “university”. Hupan is not an official university.
A social media account called Xiake Island run by the People’s Daily, the Communist party’s flagship newspaper, sharply criticised Hupan and its students on Thursday.
China has 1,186 company “universities”, the Xiake post said. “‘Hupan University’ is actually a privately run non-business organisation, not a degree-granting educational institution,” the post added, noting that “students” who attend such places actually want “to join a group, make connections and get resources”.
It also criticised Hupan’s role in fostering a peer group that backed a Hupan student while her company was under scrutiny from authorities.
“Ma needs to disassociate himself from the organisation but there are worries that Hupan may have trouble attracting students if Ma exits completely,” one person said. “The academy is popular because of him, not its curriculum.”
A profile picture of Ma on Hupan’s website has been changed to a picture of a classroom.
The Financial Times reported last month that the school suspended enrolment for its new batch of first-year students.
Alibaba referred questions to Hupan, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing
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