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Alibaba's Jack Ma Says Government Should Stick to Governing

Chinese e-commerce tycoon Jack Ma used a government-sponsored forum to suggest regulators take a lighter touch in dealing with technology companies, saying the market should be allowed to decide how new industries like artificial intelligence develop.

"I personally think that the government has to do what the government should do, and the companies do what companies should do," Mr. Ma said at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Monday, recalling a conversation he said he had last year with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao about self-driving cars.

"Protecting the backward forces who are crying out loud will be the most important factor in destroying innovation," Mr. Ma said.

Mr. Ma's comments came a week after he announced his plans to retire in one year as executive chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the internet giant with businesses in online retailing, cloud computing and mobile payments.

Mr. Ma said he wanted time to pursue philanthropic interests, but some observers saw his decision as part of the fallout from China's authoritarian government increasing restrictions on internet companies.

In recent weeks, Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s shares plunged as the government announced its plan to tighten its grip on videogames, while ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing Technology Co. has come under government scrutiny after police said a driver killed a female passenger, the second since May.

In January, Alibaba's mobile-payments affiliate Ant Financial Services Group became a target when Chinese internet regulators said the company violated new national standards on the protection of personal data.

Mr. Ma didn't directly refer to any of those events in his speech, which also included his views on how artificial intelligence could transform businesses and society. Mr. Ma urged traditional industries to embrace new technologies and spoke about how sectors such as manufacturing could be transformed through use of data.

In his speech, Mr. Ma also referenced the recent crackdown on Chinese peer-to-peer lenders, who match small borrowers with ordinary investors. These internet lenders have been blamed for stranding investors when they fail.

Mr. Ma suggested many of those lenders operated illegally under the camouflage of internet-driven financial services. He said the risk with companies that use actual data and artificial intelligence to control risks is low.

Mr. Ma didn't mention Ant Financial by name, but the company has been hit by new rules introduced to regulate the internet-driven financial services market this year.

The artificial intelligence forum is a high-profile event, hosted by various government agencies including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. One of China's top officials, Vice Premier Liu He, also spoke.

Besides Mr. Ma, Tencent's Chief Executive Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, and Baidu Inc.'s Chief Executive Robin Li gave speeches.

Liu Qiangdong, the chairman of e-commerce company JD.com Inc., was originally scheduled to appear but a company spokeswoman said he isn't attending. Mr. Liu, also known as Richard Liu, was arrested by Minneapolis police on suspicion of rape Aug. 31, and then released the next day without bail.

Through his attorneys, Mr. Liu has denied wrongdoing.

Among foreign companies represented at the event, Google has been noticeably present with two senior executives taking the stage--Vice President Jay Yagnik and Fei-Fei Li, the leader of Google Cloud AI who recently announced her plan to step down.

Their speeches come as the Alphabet Inc. unit doubles down on a China expansion strategy. The two didn't touch on Dragonfly, which, according to people familiar with the matter, is a project that includes testing a mobile version of its search engine that would adhere to China's strict censors.

Ms. Li, in speaking about Google's approach to artificial intelligence, said it was vital to consider the ethical implications of artificial intelligence as the technology develops.

Re-disseminated by The Asian Banker from The Wall Street Journal

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The Future of Finance West Africa 2019
23 - 25 April 2019 | Nigeria
Wealth & Society West Africa 2019
25 April 2019 | Nigeria
Thailand Innovation Study Tour 2019
27 - 29 May 2019 | Thailand
The Future of Finance Summit, 2019
29 - 31 May 2019 | Thailand
Digital Finance Leadership Programme 2019
29 July - 02 August 2019 | United Kingdom