The personal-computer and internet revolution that began in the late 20th century eventually took over most of the world, but its most prominent players—Amazon, Apple, eBay, Google, Microsoft—were distinctly American. In the 21st century, it is not impossible to imagine an internet revolution beginning in China.
That possibility is, as with so many aspects of China, a function of scale. Alibaba, the sprawling Chinese digital marketplace, is already, by some measures, larger than Amazon. Its payment tool Alipay alone accounts for one-third of the $2.5 trillion global online payments market.
The dizzying rise of the company is a crucial part of China’s ascension as a global economic power, and if you have never heard of the company, rest assured that you will. When the Alibaba founder Jack Ma appeared onstage last year at a summit in Manila with Barack Obama, Obama interviewed him.
We often think of successful tech CEOs climbing from the nerdy ranks of tinkering programmers, like Bill Gates, but as Alibaba, Duncan Clark’s engaging biography explains, Ma’s humble origins gave no clue to his future—then again, in 1970s China, the very idea of a homegrown technology business executive was inconceivable.
Born in 1964 to a photographer and a factory worker, Ma grew up a mediocre student in the city of Hangzhou. The only thing that set Ma apart was learning English, which he would practise by speaking to tourists passing through his hometown. One of these tourists, a vacationing Australian communist, became a generous benefactor who even helped buy a house for young Ma and his wife.
After a stint teaching English, Ma began running a tiny translation business, focused on Chinese companies—beginning to flourish under Deng Xiaoping—seeking to do business with the west. During his first visit to the US in the mid-90s, a friend in Seattle logged Ma onto the internet, and it occurred to him that listing Chinese companies online might be a good idea.
If you think early American web pioneers had a tough time persuading investors and consumers to embrace the scary new world of e-commerce, imagine the challenge Ma’s startup faced: most of China had no internet, so his early clients were handing him thousands of dollars to create web services they themselves could not see. “I was treated like a con man for three years,” Ma said.
Soon enough, though, his clients answered their phones to find curious western customers on the line. In the late 90s, as the Chinese government began a delicate programme of encouraging internet growth without giving up state control, Ma’s “China Pages” and several other Chinese startups began to attract the attention of outside investors.
That money, some of which came from the Japanese billionaire Masayosha Soni, was rocket fuel for what became Alibaba, which has a massive shipping-logistics arm on top of its e-commerce services. When Alibaba went public in 2014, the $25 billion it raised made it the largest IPO in world history (the next two, incidentally, were Chinese state-controlled enterprises).
Clark is a China-based investment adviser and onetime consultant to Alibaba; he notes that his failure to exercise stock options he was given as payment became a $30-million mistake. The access he got to the company pushes his breezy account more toward the business than to Ma’s personality.
Still, Ma emerges as an unpretentious, self-deprecating leader, fond of quoting martial arts novels and 'Forrest Gump'. Yet, he is clearly also shrewd and extremely driven. And his company has acquired enough wealth to begin to reshape the western business world; he has announced a Netflix-style video streaming service and now has a movie division that invests in Hollywood blockbusters. The Chinese government’s control over the internet may make political dissent difficult, but Ma and some others have demonstrated that there are few limits to building world-beating companies.
James Ledbetter is the editor of American magazine Inc.
Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
By Duncan Clark
Price $27.99; pages 287