China is putting its corporate champions at the service of its ambitions to compete globally in high-tech industries.
Alibaba's task is to use artificial intelligence to improve cities.
Through state-backed venture-capital funds, the government is pouring money into industries that were once the preserve of the private sector.
Rumours occasionally surface that it plans to take stakes and board seats in big tech firms.
All this has fed growing international suspicion of China, especially in America.
Mr Ma was one of the first out of the blocks to congratulate President Donald Trump on his election victory;
this year America prevented Ant's purchase of MoneyGram, a money-transfer firm, on national-security grounds.
The reality was always more complicated, but Mr Ma embodies an idea of China as market-driven and open.
That idea has faded.
None of this is to say that enterprise is fizzling in China.
Indeed one of Mr Ma's legacies is a shift to a culture that values startups more than ever.
His charisma and folksy advice have earned him cult-like status among the country's entrepreneurs.
Venture capitalists are lavishing money on hundreds of newcomers, in industries from biotech to electric vehicles.
Small private firms will continue to flourish.
But it is harder to be as disruptive today as Mr Ma was 20 years ago.
That is partly because his own creation is so dominant.