He has blazed a trail in global commerce, but can he tame the Red Dragon in his backyard? The author of new book on Ma offers The Peak insights into the man.
Alibaba is Jack’s third venture, says author Clark. Of the book, he adds: “Failure is more interesting than success... I wanted to understand how he overcame it and so I went back to his youth.”
Over 300 books, mostly in Chinese, have been written about Jack Ma, China’s richest man. But according to Duncan Clark, who served as his consultant for oneand- a-half years in 1999, many were rehashed. After Alibaba’s record US$25 billion (S$34 billion) initial public offering in 2014, he found that some of what was written about Ma was wrong and misinformed.
To clear the fog and offer new material, the Briton has written a new book, Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. To some extent, he points out, Alibaba, is a prism through which China’s future can be seen. The focus is on Ma, who is adored with cultlike status and often speaks about innovation and empowering youth for the future. As an icon of change, he is often seen as the antithesis of a system where the communist authorities don’t bat an eyelid to wield the axe at the slightest hint of dissent.
To understand China, Clark says it took him years to figure out there must be two completely contradictory thoughts in his head and to “be cool with that”.
“The very idea that a nominally communist country being arguably more capitalistic than many countries in the world is like the suspension of disbelief that you watch in a play,” he tells The Peak. “In the general approach to China, this takes a while to get used to. PRC is the People’s Republic of China, but I secretly think it is the Pragmatic Republic of China.
“The communists stay in power to deliver the economic goods and this is why entrepreneurs like Jack and the Internet can be useful, because they can make real differences in peoples lives. Pragmatism is key and Jack is useful to the government. But the question is whether they can be useful to him.”
Ma, says Clark, often talks about falling in love with the government but not to marry them. In this, he laments the fact that joint ventures with the state authorities will kill the innovative spirit but, at the same time, he cannot ignore them.
At times it boils over and the author cites the launch of Yu’ebao in 2013, Alibaba’s money market fund for small investors that accepts as little as 0.1 yuan (S$0.02). Almost US$100 billion was generated and, when Chinese banks pushed back, Ma tweeted: “Why aren’t the banks welcoming competition and is this the way we are going to change our financial sector?” He deleted it after a couple of days.
“You can sometimes see in his tweets that he gets frustrated,” says Clark. “There have been tensions and we have seen it over piracy issues on his e-commerce platforms, when he criticised the government and they, in turn, criticised him. Jack is definitely an icon but, like Icarus, he finds he is too close to the sun.”
The underlying message of his book, says Clark, is that Ma’s story transcends China because it is changing at a rate faster than the world thinks.
“There are 12 chapters in my book but the most interesting is the unseen Chapter 13. It is about understanding what is going on in China and not relying on hackneyed cliches. The point is, if the Chinese government is going to represent the interest of its people, then increasingly, entrepreneurs like Jack will have a big, big voice. It gives us hope they are not going to do something that will disrupt this,” he says.