Jack Ma Appears in Public After Challenging Beijing: Live Business Updates

Jack Ma appearing at a livestreamed event on Wednesday.

Jack Ma has filmed action scenes with big-time martial artists, sung duets with pop stars and appeared at corporate rallies dressed as a glam rocker and as a masked Michael Jackson impersonator. A wallflower he is not.

So speculation ran rampant after the prominent entrepreneur and co-founder of the Alibaba Group vanished from public view late last year. He had criticized Chinese regulators for what he called their overly cautious attitude toward the country’s financial system, and the authorities cracked down on his business empire shortly afterward. After that he began to skip previously scheduled appearances, prompting questions in China and in the global news media about his fate.

Mr. Ma now appears to be attempting to put the speculation to rest.

On Wednesday, he made his first public appearance since late October. He spoke at a livestreamed event honoring educators in China’s village schools. He did not address his troubles but said he would spend more time in philanthropic endeavors.

“In this time, my colleagues and I have been learning and thinking,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks published in the local news media. “We will throw ourselves more resolutely into educational philanthropy.”

Mr. Ma, a former English teacher, said that it was the responsibility of business executives of his generation to work toward common prosperity by revitalizing rural areas and developing village education. His speech was consistent with his recent efforts to step away from Alibaba’s day-to-day operations and focus more on philanthropy, though he retains considerable sway over his business empire.

His remarks were widely covered in the Chinese state-run news media, suggesting at the very least that Beijing’s censorship machine approved of his remarks. His appearance relieved some investors, who drove Alibaba’s Hong Kong-traded shares up about 9 percent in afternoon trading.

Mr. Ma, who ran Alibaba from its founding in 1999 to its rising as one of the world’s biggest and most valuable technology companies, has long been cautious around the Chinese government. Like many entrepreneurs in the country, he has forged ties with Beijing officialdom to head off any regulatory troubles.

But the rise of Alibaba’s sister company, Ant Group, put him increasingly at odds with China’s state-dominated financial system. Ant Group, which was once an Alibaba subsidiary and offers services like electronic payments and lending, now plays a huge role in the financial lives of many Chinese people. It had planned an initial public offering for late last year in Shanghai and Hong Kong, in what was widely expected to be the largest fund-raising of its kind.

But in October, at a public event, Mr. Ma accused Chinese state-run banks of behaving like “pawnshops” and the country’s financial regulators of limiting innovation by obsessing over risk.

About a week later, the government halted Ant Group’s I.P.O. and later ordered it to shake up its business practices. Then it began an antitrust investigation into Alibaba.

Amid the official blowback, Mr. Ma began to bow out of previously scheduled appearances, including as a judge on an African entrepreneur-themed talent show that he had created. That ignited speculation, especially after other entrepreneurs who challenged Chinese officialdom were dealt heavy punishments.

Janet Yellen appears before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. 
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Republicans foreshadowed their opposition to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s economic plans on Tuesday, pressing Janet L. Yellen, his nominee for Treasury secretary, to defend a $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal that would provide more direct payments to individuals, expanded jobless benefits and money for states and cities.

The opposition from Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee during Ms. Yellen’s confirmation hearing underscored the challenge that the incoming Biden administration will face in trying to push its proposal through Congress given the narrow control it has in the Senate and House.

“We’re looking at another spending blowout,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. “The only organizing principle I can understand, it seems, is to spend as much money as possible, seemingly for the sake of spending it.”

Mr. Toomey took issue with Mr. Biden’s plans to send more money to states and cities, a measure that Republicans have opposed for the last year and that was dropped from the last round of stimulus talks in order to win passage of the $900 billion aid package. He also expressed concern about Mr. Biden’s proposed tax increases and his call for raising the minimum wage to $15.

Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, seized on Mr. Biden’s call to raise the minimum wage from $7.25, arguing to Ms. Yellen that doing so would hurt small businesses while they are vulnerable and would lead to more job losses.

Other Republicans complained that the Biden economic plan is fiscally irresponsible given the nation’s growing debt load and the federal budget deficit, which topped $3 trillion last year. Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, said that Mr. Biden’s plan is not sufficiently targeted and that giving an additional $1,400 in direct payments to some people who have not lost jobs is not an efficient use of federal resources.

Ms. Yellen rebutted their arguments point by point, making the case that doing too little to stimulate the economy would be more costly in the long run. She said that economic research have shown minimal job losses from raising the minimum wage, pointing to studies of neighboring states when one imposes an increase and the other does not.

She also argued that jobless benefits, which under Mr. Biden’s plan would be supplemented with an extra $400 per week, are not sufficient to address the financial struggles facing families and that the $1,400 stimulus checks are important in situations where one person, generally a woman, has left a job to care for children who are out of school.

“There are many families that are bearing exceptional financial burdens that are not addressed by unemployment compensation,” she said.

Ms. Yellen did offer some assurances to Republicans who are fearful that Democrats will repeal the entire 2017 tax law, which slashed taxes for individuals and corporations. She said that while Mr. Biden does want to make changes to the law, including raising the corporate tax rate, such actions are not an immediate priority.

“The focus right now is on providing relief and on helping families keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, and not on raising taxes,” she said.

The revived Paycheck Protection Program is off to a smoother — and slower — start than it had last spring, when desperate borrowers deluged banks with loan applications and overwhelmed the government’s computer systems.

The program opened broadly on Tuesday as the Small Business Administration, which manages the relief program, began accepting applications from all lenders. The agency allowed a small subset of community lenders and tiny banks to start submitting their applications last week.

In the program’s first week, the agency approved around 60,000 applications from nearly 3,000 lenders, the it said on Tuesday. Those applications totaled $5 billion, consuming around 2 percent of the $284 billion the program has available to lend.

Those figures do not include loan applications sent to the agency on Tuesday, the first day most lenders were allowed to send in loan requests. New fraud checks and other safeguards mean that most applications will now take at least a day to gain approval.

The program is open to both first-time borrowers and to some returning ones: The hardest-hit small businesses, those with a drop in sales of at least 25 percent since the pandemic took hold, are eligible for a second loan.

Lenders said they were preparing for significant demand, especially for second-round loans. John Asbury, the chief executive of Atlantic Union Bank, in Richmond, Va., said he expected that at least 60 percent of his bank’s 11,000 borrowers would return for another loan.

Officials from the Treasur
y Department have said they anticipate that the program’s funding will be sufficient to fulfill all requests. Mr. Asbury hopes that’s true.

“We simply don’t know how much of a rush we’re going to get,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of calls.”

Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, with President Trump at a White House briefing in March.
Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s said they were dropping products from MyPillow amid a backlash to comments made by Mike Lindell, the bedding company’s chief executive, who has been promoting debunked conspiracy theories involving the election on social media.

Mr. Lindell said that Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond acted after people on social media started pressuring them, according to an interview posted Monday on a pro-Trump site called Right Side Broadcasting Network. Mr. Lindell, who said that he had spoken with Bed Bath & Beyond minutes before the interview, claimed without citing evidence that the criticism was coming from fake accounts.

Bed Bath & Beyond said on Tuesday that its decision was rooted in MyPillow’s performance. “We have been rationalizing our assortment to discontinue a number of underperforming items and brands,” a representative said in a statement. A spokeswoman for Kohl’s said that “there has been decreased customer demand for MyPillow,” and that the chain did not plan to buy future inventory after clearing out its supply.

Mr. Lindell, whose company is a major advertiser on Fox News, has become a prominent supporter of President Trump. He drew a wave of attention last week after a photograph of partially visible notes he was carrying into the White House showed a mention of the Insurrection Act. MyPillow also offered a “FightforTrump” discount code on the day of the Capitol riots. On social media, groups like Sleeping Giants, which was created to choke off advertising dollars to Breitbart News, have been asking vendors about their support for MyPillow products.

Mr. Lindell railed against Sleeping Giants in the interview.

“These guys don’t understand, they’re scared,” Mr. Lindell said of Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s. “They were good partners. In fact, I told them, you guys come back any time you want.”