Nobody knew until last month that Joseph Chung-Hsin Tsai — better known as Joe Tsai — was the “mystery buyer” who dropped $157 million this spring on two massive condos at 220 Central Park South, the most expensive apartment building in the country.
So far, keeping a relatively low profile and understanding international office politics has worked out well for Tsai, said to be worth at least $12 billion. The 57-year-old is the co-founder of Alibaba (China’s version of Amazon), the owner of the Brooklyn Nets and a friend of the Chinese Communist Party.
The same can’t be said for Jack Ma, his flamboyant onetime partner and the creative genius behind Alibaba. Ma has barely been seen in public for the past 10 months. His wings have been clipped, possibly permanently, by officials after Ma publicly dissed his country’s banking system last fall. He is reportedly being “re-educated” by the Chinese Communist Party.
“Tsai is savvy — savvier than Jack Ma,” Peter Navarro, author of “Death By China: Confronting the Dragon,” told The Post.
“In America you get canceled for saying the wrong thing. In China you get canceled for becoming a bigger celebrity than [President] Xi Jinping. Tsai realized that; Jack Ma did not,” Navarro said.
Tsai, who was born in Taiwan and educated in the US with citizenship in Hong Kong and Canada, is currently gallivanting around the world. He splits his time between a luxe home in Hong Kong, an oceanfront estate in La Jolla, Calif., and the new digs on Billionaires’ Row.
In addition to the Nets, Tsai and his wife, Kansas-born Clara Wu Tsai, co-own the WNBA’s New York Liberty, the San Diego Seals lacrosse team and the Barclays Center, where the Nets play their home games.
“Tsai is reducing his China risk when he buys the Nets and Central Park South. It’s a smart thing to do,” Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” told The Post. “Xi is going after Chinese tech companies like never before and no one knows how it’s going to end up.”
Meanwhile, Ma is thought to be under what amounts to house arrest in China, according to experts.
“He’s lying low right now. I talk to him every day,” Tsai told CNBC in June. “He’s actually doing very, very well. He’s taken up painting as a hobby.”
Ma built Alibaba into a $500 billion powerhouse and turned himself into the kind of iconic frontman more common among American and UK billionaires. At one point, his face was reportedly more recognizable in China and around the world than Xi’s.
Ma hung out with movie stars like Tom Cruise and Daniel Craig and top politicians all over the world, and became known for his wild performances — dressing as Michael Jackson or Elton John — at Alibaba functions.
His high life came to a halt when he gave a now-infamous speech at a 2020 conference, calling out China’s state-owned banks and regulators for being backward. Among other things, Ma slammed their “pawnshop mentality.”
“Today’s financial system is the legacy of the Industrial Age,” Ma said. “We must set up a new one for the next generation and young people.”
His remarks came days before Ma’s financial tech firm Ant Group was readying what would have been the world’s biggest IPO. In response, Beijing pulled the plug on the deal and since then has relentlessly gone after Ma’s massive empire, reducing it by half — levying antitrust fines against Alibaba and almost eviscerating Ant by dividing it up with new partners.
The less colorful Tsai, on the other hand, has never been more successful.
It hasn’t hurt that he seems to know which masters to bow to. Last October, Tsai responded to a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong fighting the increasing overreach of the mainland.
While flying private from New York to Shanghai for a Nets game, Tsai wrote an astonishing “letter to NBA fans” that he posted on Facebook. In it, he referred to the Hong Kong protests as a “separatist movement.”
“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the Western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland,” he wrote. “This issue is non-negotiable.”
From a business perspective, Tsai was correct in trying to do damage control. Sources told ESPN that the NBA lost between $150 million and $200 million in revenue when Chinese officials yanked sponsorships and airtime after the Morey tweet.
But the irony in Tsai’s defense of China and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party, is that he comes from a family who fled it.
Tsai’s paternal grandfather, an adviser to the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government, left Shanghai for Taiwan in 1948 with his family. They were part of a mass exodus after the Communists won the civil war.
At 13, Tsai was sent from his home in Taipei to boarding school in Lawrenceville, NJ. He then went on to graduate from Yale University and Yale Law School. His parents were reportedly made naturalized citizens of Canada in the 1970s, according to a source, which is apparently why Tsai has Canadian citizenship. But seemingly, none of the family ever lived in Canada.
Tsai is based in Hong Kong and visits his wife and three kids — all American citizens — in the US often, a source familiar with the situation told The Post.
He and Clara met in 1993 when Tsai worked at the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm and she was a senior manager and vice-president at American Express. They married in 1996.
“My first job after law school was in New York. I met my wife, Clara, here so New York to me is my second home,” Tsai told The Post in 2019.
By 1999 the couple had moved to Hong Kong, where Tsai was a $700,000-per-year principal at a private equity firm. That year, a friend introduced him to Ma — a former English teacher with a big idea about getting hundreds of Chinese companies online so they could sell their wares to the world.
As the story goes, Tsai was so impressed with Ma’s vision that he was ready to leave his job. But the feeling wasn’t immediately mutual. Tsai reportedly had to return more than once to meet with Ma but it wasn’t until he brought Clara that Tsai clinched the deal. By several accounts she is his best asset.
Clara has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in international policy studies from Stanford as well as an MBA from Harvard.
“Joe Tsai’s smart, but his wife is always the smartest person in the room,” someone who has worked with them told The Post. “She seems to have an innate ability to be able to read landscapes well and really understand events. She comes across like a futurist.”
Clara has worked on her pet cause, prison reform, with Kim Kardashian. She and Tsai have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charities and universities in recent years. They made gifts to Stanford ($250 million) and Yale (reportedly $800 million) under the rubric of “neuroscience” — which involves futuristic brain technology and is a favored investment of billionaires including Elon Musk and Google’s Ray Kurzweil.
But for all Tsai’s philanthropy, some think he is a traitor to his people.
Many supporters of Hong Kong protesters, including now-jailed Jimmy Lai, publisher of the now-shuttered Apple Daily, are disappointed by Tsai’s defense of the Chinese Communist Party’s heavy-handed influence over Hong Kong.
“If Joe Tsai would sell HK, he’d sell Taiwan, despite the island sheltering his family from potential death 70 years ago,” Catie Lilly, a Taiwanese-American historian, tweeted in 2019.
Which is another way of saying, according to some experts, that Tsai knows which way the wind is blowing and knows how to harness it.
“Tsai, frankly, is a whole lot shrewder than Ma,” Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Post.
“Tsai is unabashedly supportive of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies, including its recent security crackdown in Hong Kong,” Singleton added. “Having benefited from a close working relationship with the ruling party, Tsai understands the importance of going along to get along.”