Billionaire Ant Group Co. co-founder Jack Ma skipped a recent taping of an African TV program he created, spurring speculation online about his whereabouts and the outcome of an investigation into his internet empire.

Ma hasn’t been seen in public since Chinese regulators torpedoed Ant’s $35 billion IPO, then tightened fintech regulations and launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. — all in a span of days. The Financial Times on Friday reported that the showrunners of the Shark Tank-like "Africa’s Business Heroes” replaced him as a judge in a November telecast and removed his photo from the show’s website, around the same time Ma delivered his now-infamous rebuke of the "pawnshop” mentalities of government overseers.

The flamboyant Ma — long a fixture on the international conference circuit — all but vanished from public view thereafter. As of early December, the man most closely identified with the meteoric rise of China Inc. was advised by the government to stay in the country, a person familiar with the matter has said. An Alibaba spokesperson said Ma couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts, declining to comment specifically on the executive’s whereabouts.

Ma may have his hands full dealing with escalating scrutiny. The crackdown on Ma’s companies has set in motion a string of regulatory decrees that threaten to reshape the landscape for China’s online operators. Regulators are now studying plans to force Ant to divest equity investments in some financial companies, curbing the company’s influence over the sector, a person familiar with the matter has said.