Long before he became China’s most globally prominent business figure, Jack Ma was an English teacher trying to persuade his friends that they would one day buy things over the internet. His vision changed China. As Ma makes plans to leave Alibaba, his legacy will be an enduring one. He did far more than create and build an e-commerce juggernaut into the most valuable company in Asia, impressive as that may be. He showed that an innovative private enterprise could thrive under a communist party regime once hostile to, and still at times suspicious of, ambitious capitalists. To a remarkable degree, his path-breaking success created a model that gave rise to a technology industry that rivals Silicon Valley, putting the Chinese economy on track to eclipse that of the US. Ma is now China’s richest man, worth about $40bn, and a headliner at global talking salons like Davos. At the same time, he complied with — and fiercely defended — his country’s governing party even as it exerts ever t...

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