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Ma, a former tour guide, English teacher and self-styled "China's Forrest Gump", would remain on the company's board of directors and continue to mentor the company's management, the New York Times said.

Like Gates, he has created his own eponymous foundation - the Jack Ma Foundation - which he says will push his original calling: education. He is the first among a generation of Chinese internet entrepreneurs to leave the companies they've founded. His departure is a sign of confidence in current management as the business evolves by expanding beyond e-commerce to include digital payments, cloud computing and the production of big-budget movies.

He retired as Alibaba's chief executive in 2013, eventually handing the reins to his protege Daniel Zhang, but he remained active within the company, providing strategic direction as chairman.

Ma's retirement comes after a torrid couple of weeks for his rival tech CEOs in China.

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Their plan involved purchasing a McDonald's golf shirt at a thrift store for US$5.99. "I was very, very nervous", Jevh said. It was unclear whether McDonald's knew the poster's origins or if the eatery would allow it to remain.

"This is something I think I can do much better than being CEO of Alibaba", he told Bloomberg TV recently.

As Beijing has increased its involvement in the private sector, Ma has shifted what he has said about China's government. That contrasts with the tycoons of Asia, where 85 per cent of billionaires face a shift from first-generation founders to their successors, according to a 2016 UBS report that tracked 1,400 billionaires over 20 years. He now has a net worth of more than $40 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"I'm sure he'll be just as involved as he has been in his chairman role, even if he doesn't have the formal title", said Carter. However, in contrast to the American magnate, he wants to "retire earlier".

Alibaba did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Though it was a briefly-held position, given the erratic nature of the stock market, it was an exciting milestone nonetheless. This growth was made clear when Apple managed to become the first US-based trillion-dollar company earlier this year.

After being knocked back by USA venture capitalists in 1999, a cash-strapped Ma persuaded friends to give him $60,000 to start Alibaba, which operated out of an apartment in Hangzhou.

He is referred to as "Teacher Ma" within Alibaba. He would take the company to astronomical heights and make it China's major e-commerce website in the years to come. The business has more than 870 million users via payment system Alipay and its affiliates.

Ma is stepping back at a tricky time for Chinese tech firms. Alibaba made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, which remains the largest initial public offering (IPO) in history.

Ma's retirement puts more distance between Alibaba and one of its most visible and charismatic spokesmen.

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A focus on education wouldn't surprise keen followers of Ma, who has spoken frequently of its importance to him and some of his shortcomings as a student, including failing China's national university exam twice.