By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
Updated: September 8, 2018 10:46 AM ET

Good morning. It’s Saturday night here in Hong Kong and the big news is a story that popped up about an hour ago on the website of the South China Morning Post. The headline: “Jack Ma to remain Alibaba’s chairman in succession plan for younger talent to take over reins.”

The SCMP story refutes a widely cited account published in yesterday’s New York Times claiming that the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, China’s most valuable company, in an interview with the Times, had declared his intention to retire and step down as chairman effective Monday.

Ordinarily, when reporting in those two newspapers is in conflict, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Times. But in this case, there’s a good reason to accept the Post’s version: it’s wholly owned by Alibaba Group.

I’d been puzzling over the Times story all day. It appeared to be a huge scoop, and was picked up by news services around the world. The Times said Ma had decided to relinquish his position as executive chairman on Monday, his 54th birthday, in order to shift his attention to philanthropy and education. The headline, over a long analysis, declared the move a “retirement” and in the first paragraph deemed it a “changing of the guard” for Alibaba.

The report invited speculation. Was Ma leaving the company because he felt it was in good hands? Or stepping back because it was in trouble? Just the other day in Data Sheet, I mused that China’s tech sector has entered a cutthroat new era in which the advantage has shifted from tech companies with visionary founders to those with steely-eyed execution-oriented managers. The Journal yesterday explored the harsh new realities that have caught up with China’s tech giants.

But as Saturday unfolded, no one seemed able to match the Times report. Alibaba didn’t issue any statements about the Times’ report or Ma’s retirement. Officials in Hong Kong didn’t respond to my queries about it. There was no mention of Ma surrendering the executive chairmanship on, the official Alibaba website, and nothing on the website of The South China Morning Post.

Then, at 8:17 PM China time, the Post weighed in: “An Alibaba spokesman said Ma remains the company’s executive chairman and will provide transition plans over a significant period of time, contrary to a New York Times article that said he was ‘stepping down’ to ‘retire.’ The Times story was taken out of context and factually wrong, the spokesman said.” Ouch.

Then there was this quote from Ma himself:

“Anybody who knows me knows I embrace the future. This is not about retiring, stepping away, or backing off. This is a systematic plan.”

More China news below.

Clay Chandler


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