Why China Turned Towards Alibaba’s Jack Ma


Mr. Xi made no secret of what his ideal capitalist should be like. Ten days after the Ant initial public offering debacle, he attended a museum exhibition dedicated to Zhang Jian, an industrialist who was active more than a century ago. Zhang helped build his hometown of Nantong and opened hundreds of schools. Business numbers in the Xi era, it was said, should bring their nation ahead of business too.

At a meeting with members of the business community in July, Mr. Xi pointed to Zhang as a role model and asked them to rate patriotism as their highest quality. (Mr. Xi is reported not to have mentioned that Zhang died bankrupt.)

Mr. Ma has his own high profile philanthropic projects, such as various initiatives in rural education and an award to develop entrepreneurial talent in Africa. But in many ways, the extravagant tech entrepreneur is very different from Zhang.

He has long had a better reputation than his peers in manufacturing, real estate, and other industries whose benefits may include maintaining close government ties, ignoring environmental regulations, or exploiting employees.

He is equally famous for making bold statements and challenging the authorities. In 2003, he founded Alipay, which later became part of the Ant Group, and put his business empire at the center of the state-controlled financial world.

“If someone has to go to jail for Alipay, leave it to me,” he said to his colleagues at the time.

Sometimes he subtly dared the government to punish his defiance. Regarding Ant’s business, he said several times, “If the government needs it, I can give it to the government.” His top lieutenants also repeated the line.

Few people took these comments seriously at the time. People who know him well thought it was a very “Jack thing”. “Give Alipay into the country? Jack Ma is just saying, “The headline of a 2010 opinion piece in the China Business News newspaper reads.