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But the company's chairman is now retiring, telling The New York Times that he plans to step down on Monday - his 54th birthday - to devote his time to philanthropy focused on education. He co-founded the Chinese internet retailer in 1999 and built it into an empire now worth $420 billion and making the former English teacher China's richest man worth about $40 billion.

China's richest man said that he would remain on Alibaba's board of directors as he pursues philanthropic endeavours, the New York Times reported.

Ma's Bloomberg interview came as shares of China's second-largest e-commerce company, JD.com, plummeted as its CEO Li Qiangdong was arrested in the USA over an accusation of rape.

Ma said he could never be as rich as Gates - but that he could retire earlier than Gates. The Chinese economy is also facing slowing growth and increasing debt, and the country is embroiled in an escalating trade war with the United States.

He co-founded the company with 17 other people, some of whom were his students, out of his apartment in Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang province.

Ma started his journey with just United States $ 60,000 - loaned to him by friends, and started Alibaba in 1999.

Among China's biggest companies, Alibaba is viewed as one of the firms with the deepest ranks of management talent.

Tesla's chief accountant quits after one month on the job (TSLA)
Rogan asked. "Almost never", said Musk, chairman and chief executive officer of Tesla and chairman of the board at SpaceX . Musk stunned investors last month with tweets saying he had funding to take the company private for $420 (£323) a share.

His retirement would mark "the beginning of an era" for him, one in which he could concentrate on charitable activities in education, a field close to his heart, he said in the interview.

Ma's departure is sure to leave an impression, perhaps one that is larger than the one he made during the years he led Alibaba. Ma stepped down as Alibaba's chief executive in 2013; the company's current chief executive is Daniel Zhang, who is a candidate to succeed Ma.

Often compared to Amazon.com, Alibaba's parent company has e-commerce, online payment, banking, entertainment and cloud computing businesses.

Earlier this week, Mr Ma told Bloomberg TV that he wanted to create a personal foundation, following in the footsteps of Microsoft's Bill Gates.

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.

This year, regulators shot down a $1.2 billion bid for money transfer service Moneygram International Inc (MG.O) by Ant Financial on national security grounds, which the company said was related to "geopolitical" changes.