Jack Ma’s AliBaba will be remembered in the annals of tech history. But hides a darker side of state-sponsored capitalism
Jack Ma, or Ma Yun, to give his Chinese name, is a legend in the world of e-commerce. Having stumbled upon the opportunities the internet offered, he began his technological career by essentially moving the Chinese classified pages online. For American companies looking to source from China, this became a starting point and Ma became the go-to guy. It was not long before he saw other opportunities online. His Alibaba website made it easy for Chinese vendors to sell everything — from plastic containers to computers — and show off their wares to a global audience of buyers. Indeed, one can argue that without AliBaba, the “Made in China” phenomenon, with Chinese goods hollowing out the manufacturing abilities of nation after nation, would not have happened. It was not surprising that the Chinese establishment began to view AliBaba and its various enterprises, particularly the financial services arm AliPay and Ant Financial services, as instruments of China’s capitalist expansion across the world. Notably, Ma used these two firms to spread into India with investments in companies like PayTM.
While he is an innovator, the success of several of his firms is primarily due to the fact that the internet in China has remained behind the “great firewall.” While Yahoo’s Jerry Yang was an early believer in Ma, most American firms have been excluded from directly participating in the Chinese internet. That has not, however, kept away American capital. AliBaba’s Wall Street debut was the most successful by a foreign firm in the US. Ergo, some of Ma’s comments, which echo that of the Chinese Government about “open and free” markets, seem rather ironic. China has allowed a host of world-class firms to have been built inside its closed walls, protected from outside predators and now flush with cash, they want to go out and buy the world. While Ma is no doubt a success story, rising from nothing to become one of China’s richest men, India should be doubly careful about accepting money in companies that provide essential services. Rumour has it that the Chinese Government eventually eased Ma out but given the still opaque way that its corporate environment operates, one can never be sure. China is increasingly seeing firms created by the likes of Ma to be tools in its quest to take on the US. May be he protested this, we will never know. But the rise of Ma will eventually be made into a movie, that much is certain.