HONG KONG--Jack Ma, China’s richest man and the guiding force behind its biggest e-commerce company, belongs to an elite club of power brokers, 89 million strong: the Chinese Communist Party.

The party’s official People’s Daily newspaper included Ma, executive chairman of the Alibaba Group and the country’s most prominent capitalist, in a list it published Monday of 100 Chinese people who had made extraordinary contributions to the country’s development over the past 40 years. The entry for Ma identified him as a party member.

It may sound contradictory that the wealthy Ma belongs to an organization that got its start calling for the empowerment of the proletariat. But Ma’s political affiliation came as no surprise to many Chinese and China watchers. Though it still publicly extols the principles of Karl Marx, the Chinese Communist Party largely abandoned collectivist doctrine in the post-Mao era, freeing private entrepreneurs to help build the world’s second-largest economy after the United States.

In fact, the disclosure reveals a party that is eager to prove its legitimacy by affiliating itself with capitalist success stories. Ma is a tech rock star in China, and his membership in the party could prod others to follow his lead.

“Even Jack Ma is a party member,” said Kellee Tsai, dean of humanities and social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to the party’s pitch. “Doesn’t it make you want to join the party, too?”

Alibaba declined to comment on the matter. The Hurun Report, a research organization in Shanghai that tracks the wealthy in China, estimates Ma and his family’s net worth at 270 billion renminbi, or $39 billion.

Today’s party isn’t exactly exclusive. Its members represent nearly 7 percent of China’s population. Its ranks include government officials, businesspeople and even dissidents. Being a member often suggests a desire to network and get ahead rather than express one’s political views.

For businesspeople in particular, membership is more often a matter of expediency. Party membership provides a layer of protection in a country where private ownership protections are often haphazardly enforced or ignored entirely.

Though its constitution still describes members as “vanguard fighters of the Chinese working class imbued with communist consciousness,” the party has veered away from its communist roots and welcomed private entrepreneurs since 2001. Some of the richest men in China are party members, including Wang Jianlin of the Dalian Wanda Group, a property and entertainment conglomerate, and Xu Jiayin of the Evergrande Group, a property developer.

It is unclear when Ma joined the party or how much he pays in dues. The party sets dues at 2 percent of monthly salary for higher-income members.

The star power of the Chinese entrepreneur class has dimmed since Xi Jinping became the country’s top leader in 2012. Under Xi, the Communist Party plays a bigger role in not only Chinese politics but also the economy and everyday life. Any entity with more than three party members is required to set up a party cell. Some three-quarters of private enterprises, or 1.9 million, had done so in 2017, according to official data.

Companies say they face much greater pressure to set up the cells than in the past. Even some of the coolest startups in tech-savvy Beijing have designated party-building spaces.

The disclosure of Ma’s membership reflects the thinking that the party controls the economy and society, said Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a critic of the party.

“It’s going backward from the Deng Xiaoping era, when the party advocated the separation of the party and the government,” she said, referring to the party leader who ultimately governed China during its early years of reform in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The disclosure also drew attention because Ma had in the past tried to keep his distance from the government. When asked at public appearances how he managed government relations, he often said, “Fall in love with the government, but don’t get married.”

But as Xi tightens ideological controls and the power of the state grows, many successful entrepreneurs have made a point of showing their party loyalty.

Ma visited Yan’an, the city often considered the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Revolution, in 2015, according to the Chinese news media. Pony Ma, who is chief executive of the internet giant Tencent Holdings but is not a party member, nonetheless showed up in Yan’an as well this year, wearing a Red Army uniform. Yan’an is also where Xi spent much of his teenage years.

In recent weeks, amid signs of a slowing economy and an intensifying trade war with the United States, China’s leaders have taken a softer tone toward private enterprise, making supportive remarks and promising tax cuts.

Making it clear that Jack Ma, the most successful businessman in China, is a member could strengthen the party’s legitimacy.

“Above all,” said Tsai of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, “the party is quite open about the fact that it wants to survive.”

(Nov. 27, 2018)