This was supposed to be Jack Ma's finest hour: A year ago to the day, his Ant Group was meant to go public in a $37 billion blaze of glory. Instead Beijing reined in his empire, abruptly clipping the wings of corporate China's biggest star.

Now, to the cautious cheer of investors, the billionaire Alibaba e-commerce tycoon is taking his first tentative steps back on to the global stage with a low-key trip to Europe where he's cultivating hobbies like horticulture.

It's a far cry from the height of Ma's statesman-like powers in 2017 when he traveled to New York to meet President-elect Donald Trump for one-on-one talks in Trump Tower days before inauguration and promised to create a million American jobs.