In the who’s who of Chinese tycoons, the “three horses” top the list. Alibaba founder Jack MaTencent boss Pony Ma, and Ping An chair Peter Ma – whose surnames mean “horse” in Mandarin – have built some of the world’s largest companies, and boast fortunes in the tens of billions. But Peter Ma, who last week engineered a bombshell activist attack on HSBC, had previously kept the lowest profile.
That all changed when Ping An, the largest investor in HSBC with 9.2 per cent of its shares, made the surprise move of calling on the lender to split its Asian and western operations: which would be the largest restructuring in HSBC’s 157-year history. It was all the more unexpected given the Chinese insurance company was itself once part-owned by HSBC.
It was also an uncomfortable step into the limelight for 67-year-old Ma, who founded Ping An – which translates as “peace and safety” – in 1988 and has turned it into the world’s second largest insurance company by market capitalization, at $ 116.7 bn. Unlike Jack or Pony Ma, he rarely appears in public, almost never gives interviews and his business di lui has attracted neither the attention of Beijing’s regulators nor Chinese state media. “He is a more deft and less flashy player,” said a veteran financier in Hong Kong who mixes in Ma’s social circles. “He has cultivated a quiet attitude. He understands that he is on a boat where he’s not the captain. “
Under the wary eye of Beijing’s officials, Ma pioneered modern insurance in China. When Ping An was founded, the country had no life insurance industry and the southern city of Shenzhen, where it established its base, was largely farmland. Ma had to overcome resistance to selling life insurance because of China’s taboo on discussing death. Private enterprise was such a new concept that his earliest employees had to carry a copy of Ping An’s insurance license as proof they were not acting illegally.
Three decades later, Ping An has more than 360,000 staff and 220mn customers, almost all within China. Building a business of this scale requires political acuity. Ma manoeuvred Ping An away from the control of Chinese state banks, its principal shareholders, into an independent business. He then courted foreign investment, opening the company’s ownership structure to Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and HSBC. It became the first Chinese financial institution to have foreign investors, and in 2004 was the largest company to float on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Central to Ping An’s operations is an attempt to reconcile cultures of east and west. Ma’s collection of essays about the company’s history, Ping An’s Language of the Heart, describes building the group on the values of Chinese philosopher Confucius and German scientist Albert Einstein. Bronze statues of both men sit in the main hall of the company’s Shenzhen training campus. His move di lui to buy up shares in HSBC – a global bank that has historically bridged Asia and Europe – evolved from conversations with his old friend Mark Tucker, the bank’s chair and former AIA chief executive, according to a person close to the matter.
Even as his ambition stretched beyond insurance and he embarked on an aggressive acquisition strategy into banking, blockchain, wealth management and traffic control systems, Ma maintained his agenda was purely domestic. In 2018 he told the Financial Times in a rare interview that Ping An was “one of the most international Chinese companies”, but dismissed the idea of expanding overseas. “He is playing the political game, being seen to be domestic-focused,” said one acquaintance, suggesting he privately favored a much more international role for the company. While Ma attended university in Wuhan, his co-CEO Jessica Tan studied at MIT and worked at global consultancy McKinsey for over a decade.
Maintaining a modest profile has proved shrewd, given the fate of other business tycoons such as Jack Ma, punished by Beijing for perceived transgressions or overreaching. “[Ma] is emotionally intelligent about the reality of. . . modern China, ”said the financier. Capitalists face enduring suspicion in China. Arrests at insurer Anbang in 2018, and the torpedoed initial public offering of Ant Financial in 2020, are potent cautionary tales.
Aligning more closely with the government may also prove to be a canny defensive move. Chinese authorities have sought to stem systemic risks by demanding higher capital requirements from too-big-to-fail financial firms: if Ping An comes under closer regulatory scrutiny, Ma and his vast fortune di lui will be firmly in the CCP’s crosshairs. The company is already under financial pressure after a disastrous investment in China Fortune Land resulted in a $ 6.5bn write-off last year. Its share price has halved since early 2021.
Ma’s shift in attitude towards HSBC is likely at the very least to have been approved by Beijing. Attempting to localise control of the bank – which is part of Hong Kong’s financial fabric but has kept its headquarters in London – mirrors China’s wider economic decoupling from the west. “Given the current environment for these nominally private businesses, the idea Ping An would do this without getting a very solid green light from the government is unthinkable,” said the acquaintance.
If he succeeds in breaking up HSBC, the fiercely private insurance mogul could find himself center stage as Beijing exerts its influence over one of the world’s largest banks.
Additional reporting by Stephen Morris in London and Cheng Leng in Hong Kong