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Jack Ma is seen during an accord signing ceremony on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Tuesday. The 4th annual Eastern Economic Forum, held in Vladivostok, will run from September 11-13. Photo: Bloomberg

Putin asks Jack Ma: ‘You are still so young, why are you retiring?’

Ma’s planned stepping down in his 50s is a rare case in the Chinese business world, where tycoons often remain in control well into old age.

Jack Ma

When Alibaba Group Holding executive chairman Jack Ma Yun announced this week that he planned to retire in a year at the age of 55, it left many scratching their heads, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the Eastern Economic Forum that took place on Tuesday in Valdivostok, Russia, Putin interrupted a round table discussion on entrepreneurship when he saw Ma to ask him why he was taking such an early retirement, according to a posting on Alibaba’s official Weibo social-media account.

“I’d like to ask that young man sitting over there eating Russian snacks, Jack Ma, you are still so young, why are you retiring?” Putin asked Ma, who was also a participant at the forum. The Eastern Economic Forum is the fourth time that Ma and Putin have met.

Ma seemed caught by surprise at the sudden question. However, he told Putin he was no longer a young man.

“I spent my 54th birthday in Russia yesterday,” Ma responded. “I have been [running Alibaba] for 19 years and achieved something, but there are still many things I hope to accomplish, like education and philanthropy.”

Putin laughed and said, “You’re younger than me, I’m already 66!”

Ma’s plan to step down in his 50s is a rare case in the Chinese business world, where tycoons often remain in control well into old age. In Hong Kong, real estate tycoon Li Ka-shing, for example, only retired as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings and CK Asset Holdings at the age of 90.

Ma, who co-founded Alibaba with 17 others, has become synonymous as the face of the company, embodying the rags-to-riches success story in China.

He plans to hand over the role of executive chairman to current Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang Yong in September 2019 to focus on teaching, education and philosophy, he told staff in an internal letter on Monday. However, Ma will remain a member of the board until 2020, and will also remain a permanent member of the Alibaba Partnership.

Alibaba on Tuesday announced a joint venture with Russia’s to create a social commerce platform that lets users play games, shop, communicate and socialise, as part of the Hangzhou-based company’s international expansion.

Ma also made several suggestions to Putin, according to mainland China media reports, including the use of online trade road to drive efforts in the Belt and Road Initiative, strengthen Sino-Russian technology cooperation, develop trade, tourism, technology and training, as well as increase support for small-and-medium sized businesses and training for young people.

Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.