Jack Ma is swapping drawings with his biggest fan

Softbank Chairman Masayoshi Son And Former Alibaba Group Chairman Jack Ma Discuss At Tokyo Forum
Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive officer of SoftBank Group Corp., left, and Jack Ma, former chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., shake hands at Tokyo Forum 2019 in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. Son unveiled a $184 million initiative Friday to accelerate artificial intelligence research in Japan, enlisting Ma to expound on his goal of commercializing the technology. Sons company announced a partnership with the University of Tokyo that includes spending 20 billion yen ($184 million) over 10 years by mobile arm SoftBank Corp. to establish the Beyond AI Institute. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two of Asia’s biggest names in tech, Masayoshi Son and Jack Ma, are keeping in touch through personal drawings.

Son, the CEO of SoftBank, opened up about some of his recent exchanges with the Alibaba co-founder during an earnings presentation Monday, saying that the two billionaires remained in contact after Ma mostly disappeared from public view for several months.

Alibaba has long been the crown jewel of SoftBank’s investment portfolio. And Son and Ma are famously close — the Japanese entrepreneur invested $20 million in Alibaba over 20 years ago, turning that bet into one that was worth $60 billion when Alibaba went public in 2014.

But “[we’re] not always [talking] about the business,” Son said in response to questions about the Chinese regulatory crackdown on Alibaba and its affiliate, Ant Group. Ma “likes to draw,” and has “sent me many drawings,” the Japanese tycoon said.

Son added that he usually responds with creations of his own, including sometimes before turning in for the night. “Thirty minutes or so, before I go to bed, I draw some drawings … [and] show him.”

Alibaba has suffered a crisis of confidence in recent months as it faces scrutiny from Chinese regulators. The stock dropped 25% late last year, though it’s recovered some ground in early 2021.

The saga started last fall, when Ant Group was preparing for what would have the world’s largest initial public offering. Then Ma accused authorities of stifling innovation and blasted China’s banks for having a “pawn shop” mentality. Within days, regulators summoned Ma and Ant executives to a meeting and then shelved the IPO altogether.

Since then, the landscape has worsened for Alibaba and other Chinese tech firms, with regulators announcing an antitrust investigation into Alibaba. Ma kept quiet and canceled an appearance at a high-profile event before briefly reemerging last month, appearing in an online video where he spoke to teachers in China.

Son has referred to Ma as a lifelong “friend and comrade,” and previously said that before the coronavirus pandemic, the two had dinner every month to catch up on work and life. Both men were on the boards of each other’s companies until last year.

“[SoftBank] continues to be Alibaba’s largest shareholder and Alibaba remains our most important investment asset,” Son wrote in a company annual report last July.

Asked about the regulatory risk on Monday, Son dismissed concerns, arguing that such moderation is healthy.

“Those are necessary regulations, necessary laws,” he told reporters. “I think what they are discussing right now is something that has already been done in US [and] European countries, and that’s not exceeding what we’ve been seeing in [those] countries.”

Son also used Alibaba as a case study for his own success on Monday, calling it a “golden egg” that had been laid by the “goose” of SoftBank. “I understand that many people have worried,” he said in reference to Alibaba. “The business itself is actually smoothly operating, and growing.”

Asked why he thought Ma had chosen to speak out against the Chinese government, Son demurred.

“I don’t know the details,” he said. “So I hesitate to make any … comment about that.”

— Laura He and Jill Disis contributed to this report.