BEIJING—Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s interest in purchasing Yahoo Inc. provides the latest test of whether Chinese companies with global ambitions can stay in line with Beijing’s social controls without sparking free-speech and other concerns in the U.S.

Alibaba Chief Executive Jack Ma told a gathering in the U.S. on Friday that the Chinese e-commerce company was interested in buying Yahoo and had been approached by private-equity firms and others about a potential deal. It was unclear whether Alibaba has taken formal steps to make an offer, and a spokesman declined to offer further details.

Talk of a deal quickly raised …

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