Corporate executives sometime like to talk about how their companies are overtaking nation states. In China, they tend to be careful not to outshine the government and avoid such analogies. Yet that’s just what Jack Ma did last week.
At Alibaba’s annual investor day, China’s richest man outlined a vision where the company he founded could become the world’s fifth-biggest economy by 2036, trailing only the U.S., China, Europe and Japan. Let’s just say most entrepreneurs in China wouldn’t make that comparison.
“Well, people say, this is too big,” Ma said of the scale of Alibaba’s ambition. “It costs nothing to imagine, right?”
Many shrugged the comments off as bluster from a man prone to making grand pronouncements. Ma based his prediction on the number of goods transacted on his platforms and the potential number of customers. And Alibaba’s $23.5 billion in revenue last year was still dwarfed by Alphabet’s $90 billion and Amazon’s $136 billion. In Ma’s own words, the Chinese e-commerce giant is still just “a baby.”
Yet in Hangzhou, in front of thousands of global investors, Ma planted the flag and claimed that his company would one day become one of the world’s most powerful economies by serving 2 billion people and helping 10 million small businesses trade freely on the web. On the face of it, the declaration encapsulates the libertarian dream of empowering individuals and transcending borders. Ma has spent years cultivating an image of a rebel fighting the system, knocking down walls protecting state-owned enterprises and becoming a billionaire in the process.
Yet on closer examination, it’s clear that none of Ma’s rhetoric ignored the groundwork that has already been laid out by Beijing, whether it’s China expanding its footprint in Africa, exploring the ocean frontier in Southeast Asia, or revitalizing the once-famous Silk Road. When Xi Jinping was in Davos talking up global trade, Ma was quick to call (again) for his web-based version of the World Trade Organization. When China touted its One Belt, One Road project, Ma was quick to tout Alibaba’s expansion in those regions. If anything, he’s China’s shadow diplomat, flying more than 870 hours and visiting 40 countries last year to meet with prime ministers and other leaders.
Ma’s dabbling in international affairs is rooted in the goal of amassing billions of customers by 2036. By his own calculation, China will only be able to provide 40 percent of that market, the rest will have to be found overseas. Following China’s Belt-Road project, setting up global trade platforms, even his promise to President Donald Trump to create a million jobs in the U.S. is all part of that plan. Indeed, Ma heads to Detroit next week to bring that message.
If anything, Jack Ma is a master in the dark arts of influence and international affairs. That probably makes him more of a savvy politician than a libertarian icon.