The most interesting man at Davos was not He Who Must Not Be Named. (In the style of the Harry Potter books, I’m going to omit the name of the Dark Lord, otherwise known as the president of the United States. To be frank, I’m bored with him.) No, the most interesting man at this year’s World Economic Forum was a rather scrawny 53-year-old former English teacher from Hangzhou in eastern China whose business is poised to take over the world economy.
Jack Ma is the founder and chairman of Alibaba, the ecommerce company that you probably think of as the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. You’re wrong. I’ll get to why you’re wrong in a minute. But first: Jack.
Silicon Valley has its fair share of egotists, but none can match Ma. If you didn’t catch it, watch his immensely self-indulgent yet captivating martial arts movie, which was one of the pop-cultural highlights of last year. Titled Gong Shou Dao (The Art of Attack and Defence), the 22-minute film features t’ai chi enthusiast Ma battling a succession of martial arts masters including former wushu champions Jet Li and Donnie Yen and retired sumo champion Asashoryu.
This is what being worth $43bn (£30bn) makes possible: you can hire the best cinema choreographers in the business — such as Yuen Woo-ping, who co-ordinated the fight scenes in The Matrix and Kill Bill films — and get them to make your home movie. It’s wildly over the top, of course, but can you imagine even Elon Musk having the chutzpah to do that?
Two weeks ago I visited Hangzhou and took a trip to the sprawling campus that is Alibaba’s headquarters. In the heart of it, surrounded by brand-new office blocks, is an incongruous black-roofed compound built in the ancient Chinese style. “That’s Jack’s office,” I was told.
As a boy growing up in the impoverished, chaotic China of the Cultural Revolution, Ma Yun (to give him his Chinese name) studied English, cycling miles from his home to meet the few English-speakers at the international hotel in Hangzhou, offering them free guided tours to build up his language skills. Yet that did not make him especially employable in the China of the 1980s. He was rejected by the police. He was even rejected by KFC. He applied to Harvard — 10 times. More rejections. He was reduced to lecturing in English at a local college.
In early 1995, Ma took a trip to America and had his first encounter with the internet. Unlike Jeff Bezos, who started Amazon to sell books online, Ma from the outset envisioned an online marketplace for everything. He ran the name Alibaba past a San Francisco waitress. “What do you know about Alibaba?” he asked her, to which she replied: “Open sesame.” (Presumably if she’d said “Forty thieves” it would have been back to the drawing board.)
So what else makes Alibaba different from Amazon? Two things. First, Ma moved faster than his American counterpart, Bezos, to diversify his business. In particular, Alibaba pioneered electronic payments, establishing Alipay to allow online purchases with no transaction fees.
Today few things impress the western visitor to China more than the ubiquity of electronic payments. Everyone pays for everything with smartphones. Although Tencent’s WeChat messaging app now offers a rival service, it was Alipay that blazed the trail, not only with online payments but also with money-market funds (Yu’e Bao) and a growing range of online financial services, now spun off as Ant Financial. One day I’ll fully understand why America fell behind in financial technology. Maybe it was regulation. But whatever made Alipay ubiquitous in China in a way that PayPal isn’t in America, Ma was surely a part of it.
As an investment, Alibaba has been a dream. If you bought stock in its 2014 New York initial public offering, you’ve tripled your money. True, the past year was a great one to own Amazon.com: the stock rose 67%. But Alibaba’s share price doubled.
The second thing that sets Alibaba apart from Amazon is the sheer scale and speed of growth of the Chinese ecommerce market. Notice, too, that Bezos — especially since he acquired The Washington Post — is at daggers drawn with Him Who Must Not Be Named. Ma, on the other hand, couldn’t be on better terms with Xi Jinping.
“The political and legal system of the future is inseparable from the internet, inseparable from big data,” he told a Communist Party commission last year. Technology, he went on, would soon make it possible to pre-empt criminal acts. “Bad guys won’t even be able to walk into the square.” Put differently: if the Chinese government wants data from Alibaba, Jack’s not about to say no.
All this matters a great deal because one of the implications of You Know Who’s “America first” policy is that the rest of the world is up for grabs. In his (by his own standards) bland speech at Davos, the Dark Lord repeated his sales pitch to global businesses to invest in the United States. His administration’s slashing of the US corporate tax rate and sweeping deregulation mean that many probably will. However, if multinationals such as Apple are going to move production back to America, what does that imply for the rest of the world?
Ma has an answer to that question. “Ecommerce is not for big companies or developed countries,” he said. “It’s for developing countries, young people and small businesses. We should not let world global trade be controlled by 60,000 big companies. We should make technologies and policies to encourage 6m, 16m or 60m businesses . . . Alibaba will make it happen.”
That’s smart. Every emerging market in the world lags behind China when it comes to ecommerce, from the nuts and bolts logistics of delivering packages to the high-end application of artificial intelligence to consumer credit. Ma’s new mission is to roll out the Chinese model not in America or Europe but everywhere else.
“Five years ago,” he said at Davos, “Alibaba sent 80,000 packages to Russia and Russia’s postal system crashed.Today 1m packages go from China to Russia per day.” A similar process of expansion has taken Alibaba to India and southeast Asia.
Until recently, I was among those who assumed that the world would be divided up in the following way: the titans of Silicon Valley — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — would take everywhere except China, which would be dominated by Chinese rivals Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT). But what if it is BAT that takes everywhere except America?
The chatter at Davos was that He Who Must Not Be Named had been put in his place by some harsh words from the billionaire investor George Soros. But for me it was Ma who offered the better riposte to “America first”. In Verdi’s opera Attila, the Roman general Ezio says to Attila: “You can have the universe, but leave Italy for me!” Perhaps unwittingly, You Know Who just made a similar offer to Ma. “You make America great again,” replies Jack, “but leave the universe to me.”
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford