What is the signal sent by return to China of Alibaba's founder?

The logo of Chinese technology firm Alibaba is seen at its office in Beijing, Aug. 10, 2021. [AP Photo]

Jack Ma, one of China's most prominent entrepreneurs, returned to China this week after traveling overseas for more than a year, in what is being interpreted as evidence of an improved climate for the nation's private sector.

He paid a visit Monday to the Yungu School, a private academy in Hangzhou funded by Ma's Alibaba Group, which includes one of the world's biggest online commerce companies. There, he talked about "the future of education with the campus directors" and "the challenges and opportunities" that "new technological change brings to education," according to the school's WeChat account.

Earlier this month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) "has always treated private entrepreneurs as its own people," marking an about-face from suppressing the private economy during the pandemic with tactics that included stopping what was expected to be the $37 billion IPO of Ma's Ant Group.

China's economy trended down after COVID-19 was first identified in humans in Wuhan in December 2019. Xi led the crackdown on some of China's most successful entrepreneurs as he pushed for "common prosperity" -- long a CCP catchphrase -- as an alternative to increasing inequality.

Some see Ma's return as a signal of a fundamental change of China policies in the private sector.

An article from Ejam Finance, a Guangzhou-based new media company focusing on financial information, said, "Today, Jack Ma returned to China again! I believe this is also a day when the confidence of private entrepreneurs across the country soars."

Alibaba's U.S.-listed shares rose by more than 10% after news broke of Ma's return. Alibaba Group is planning to split into six units, it said Tuesday, as Beijing said it would ease a regulatory crackdown on private enterprises.

Zongyuan Zoe Liu, fellow for international political economy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA Mandarin, "Ma Yun (Jack Ma) has been the token of Chinese entrepreneurship. His rise and fall (and seemingly rise again) have been closely associated with the Chinese government and government-led investment."

According to Reuters, China's new premier, Li Qiang, has been asking Ma to return since late last year, hoping it would boost business confidence among entrepreneurs, which enhanced the theory of Ma's return being a prophecy of a policy change.

Fraser Howie, a longtime Asia analyst, is not optimistic that Ma's return will change much.

He told Reuters, "I can see how this sort of signals a relaxation but none of the laws and institutions set up to control the private sector have changed."

Liu said the most important aspect of Ma's return is whether it can boost investors' confidence in China's economy.

"As long as confidence in the Chinese economy and confidence in the Chinese government's support for the private sector can be quickly restored, it helps to quell rumors and reduce uncertainties. After all, economic growth is a confidence game," she said.

She emphasized that confidence in the Chinese economy and expressing support for Ma's return are two different things.

Hu Ping, a onetime district councilor in Beijing who later edited China Spring and Beijing Spring, both U.S.-based journals focused on Chinese politics, told VOA Mandarin that "the loss of Chinese private entrepreneurs' confidence in the government is caused by Xi's suppression policy."

As long as Xi is in the office and his policies remain unchanged, people's trust can't be regained, Hu said.

Yao Wang, a Chinese investment expert who has been engaged in asset management in New York for nearly 30 years, believes that instead of using Ma's return to boost confidence in private enterprise, Beijing should take some practical actions.

"The best way to show the stability, continuity, predictability, and transparency of policies is to fix it in the form of law," he said.