Breaking the mould: Alibaba chair Jack Ma speaks on the sidelines of the Xin Philanthropy Conference in China on September 5. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Breaking the mould: Alibaba chair Jack Ma speaks on the sidelines of the Xin Philanthropy Conference in China on September 5. Picture: BLOOMBERG

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 tighter control over media, the internet and any hint of dissident speech. He has chastised western companies like Google that object to China’s censorship practices.

"He’s been a role-model for our generation," says Peiran Wei, who adds that he had the confidence to co-found a start-up, app developer VideoUP, in large part because of Ma and Alibaba.

Ma was born in 1964 to traditional Chinese musician-storytellers in Hangzhou, an ancient capital known for its historic sites and natural beauty. He honed his English by hanging around the town’s main hotel to practice with tourists. After working as a teacher, Ma turned to business, starting Alibaba.com in 1999 with 17 co-founders. He was not the most technically savvy entrepreneur, but he proved to be an inspiring leader who could rally his forces.

"Intelligent people need a fool to lead them," he once said. "It’s easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives."

Alibaba has brought e-commerce to remote villages and expanded into artificial intelligence, health care and Hollywood movies. Less than 20 years after its founding, the business is valued at $420bn, more than any state-backed enterprises in the country.

"He started his company with 18 people in an apartment and today whenever I pass that place I think of him," says Wei, who is also from Hangzhou. "It’s a 20-year-old apartment complex that doesn’t look posh but I still get inspiration from it."

One of the first to see the promise of Ma was Japan’s Masayoshi Son. The CEO of SoftBank Group led a $20m investment in Alibaba in 2000 and now holds a stake worth about $120bn. "He had no business plan, zero revenue," Son said of Ma. "But his eyes were very strong. I could tell from the way he talked, he has charisma, he has leadership."

Alibaba’s record-setting initial public offering altered China’s tech industry for good. Ma and his team raised $25bn, more than any other company in China.

The impact was immediate. Beijing-based smartphone maker Xiaomi raised venture funding a few months after the initial public offering at the highest valuation in the world, at $46bn. It was soon surpassed by Uber, but the floodgates were open. Venture deals in China rose from $4.4bn in 2013 to $16.6bn in 2014 and reached $62.6bn in 2017, according to the research firm Preqin. China is on track in 2018 to surpass the US in venture capital raised.

"The China start-up scene wouldn’t exist in the same way without Ma," says William Bao Bean, a Shanghai-based partner at venture capital firm SOSV.

"The celebrity of Ma and the success of Alibaba made start-ups an acceptable career choice, which has fuelled one of the biggest technology markets in the world."

Ma did occasionally criticise China, including for its pollution, a potentially dangerous proposition given the power of the governing party. But under President Xi Jinping, he quieted his independent voice and often defended the government’s practices against its critics.

Ma broke the mould for China’s business leaders, typically faceless chiefs running state-owned enterprises like PetroChina and China Mobile. He dressed up like Michael Jackson and tried the moon walk. He wore a metre-high feather Mohawk and makeup to perform at a company party. And he dispensed Yoda-like axioms that were collected in dozens of management books.

Ma did occasionally criticise China, including for its pollution, a potentially dangerous proposition given the power of the governing party. But under President Xi Jinping, he quieted his independent voice and often defended the government’s practices against its critics.

"Facebook and these companies, if they come here they have to follow the rules," Ma said in 2017. "Google left, we did not kick them out.

Mark Natkin, MD of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, says business leaders including Ma have faced pressure to support the government under Xi. "In the past four years, the environment has become one in which one must toe the government policy line much more closely," he says.

China’s government repaid Ma’s fidelity, making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for foreign technology companies to operate in the country. Facebook and Twitter, for example, are blocked in China.

"During the Cultural Revolution there was no entrepreneurialism, it was punished," says Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation.

"Ma represents the first international generation of Chinese entrepreneurs."

Bloomberg

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