Whether dressed as a rock star at company summits or hobnobbing with political and business elites, Jack Ma once appeared far larger than his short stature.
Today, the diminutive entrepreneur has never seemed smaller.
"Ma is undergoing a major recalibration of his public persona," Dr. Pichamon Yeophantong said in an interview with Business Times this week. "At the moment it seems unlikely, and unwise, for him to return to his confident and extravagant past self."
The usually-boisterous entrepreneur appeared considerably toned down in a short clip released by the Jack Ma Charitable Foundation last month, in which he spoke about local education initiatives.
"His January speech on his company's commitment to rural revitalization projects and public welfare - in effect, using language that is in line with President Xi's policy priorities - would seem to suggest this shift in his persona," she said.
"It seems opportune for Jack Ma to be portrayed as the humble teacher that he was before becoming a tech titan and one of the richest and most influential men in China," Justin Tang, Head of Asian Research at United First Partners in Singapore, told Business Times last month.
The Alibaba founder struck a different tone in his last public appearance, when he criticized the country's financial institutions for stifling innovation and hampering growth.
Chinese banks "are like pawn shops" due to the lack of "a real financial ecosystem" in the country, Ma told the audience.
"We shouldn't use the way to manage a train station to regulate an airport," he said at the Bund Financial Summit Oct. 24. "We cannot regulate the future with yesterday's means."
It was an open challenge to regulators that couldn't go unpunished.
Days after making these comments, Ma and other Alibaba executives were summoned by China's top financial watchdog for a closed door meeting. The Ant Group public listing delay was announced shortly after.
"His 'pawnshop' statement unfortunately appears to have sealed his fate," Yeophantong said.
In late December, the state announced an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba itself, which the company addressed in its quarterly report published earlier this week.
"We have established a special task force with leaders from our relevant business units to conduct internal reviews," Alibaba said.
Analysts doubt the company's vulnerability to political pressure will be a sticking point for investors.
"It is unlikely the stronger antitrust stance will have a substantial adverse impact on Alibaba's credit profile as we expect the company to be able to maintain its market leadership and strong financial profile," Fitch analyst Kelvin Ho wrote in a note.
Alibaba reported a 52% third quarter year-over-year rise in net profit attributable to shareholders Tuesday, with revenue up 37% at $33.88 billion according to exchange filings.
The company is now selling up to $5 billion in sustainable bonds in an effort to capitalize on investor interest generated by its quarterly earnings, which beat analysts' earlier estimates.
On the other hand, Ant is still weathering a steep decline in valuation ahead of another shot at a public listing.
"The regulatory challenges that Ant Group is now facing, combined with new and emerging competition from other big players in the e-commerce sector, have undoubtedly affected investor confidence," Yeophantong said.
The company had been expected to make roughly $34.5 billion in a dual listing in Hong Kong and Shanghai in November, giving Ant a valuation of up to $313 billion.
Three months on, this figure has halved and Ant's very existence, let alone any prospect of going public, remains in the air.
"There may still be some hope left for his company," said Yeophantong, pointing to reports that Ant Group will be restructuring itself as a financial holding company to get in line with regulators.
But even if Alibaba and Ant can remold themselves to the satisfaction of regulators, a similar rehabilitation is unlikely for the reputation of their founder.
"He took a risk and now has to bear with the consequences."