Duncan Clark is known in Beijing as a savvy commentator on China’s rapidly morphing tech world. A British citizen who first came to China in 1994, he learned the language and stayed for two decades. His background as an investment banker specializing in telecommunications at Morgan Stanley in London and Hong Kong helped him understand in the mid-1990s that the China market was about to take off.
Mr. Clark opened a consultancy firm, BDA, which helped raise money for the major telecom operators China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. One of the most interesting characters he encountered, Mr. Clark said, was Jack Ma, in the early days of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant Mr. Ma founded. That insider view infuses Mr. Clark’s book “Alibaba: The House Jack Ma Built,’’ to be published in April. In an interview, Mr. Clark discussed Alibaba’s phenomenal growth, Mr. Ma’s emergence as a public figure and what sets Mr. Ma apart from the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Q. You once described Jack Ma as someone who likes to cultivate the persona of an outsize personality. Isn’t there a risk in having too high a profile in China and being taken down?
A. Executives who say or do the wrong thing are always at risk. I titled the last chapter of my book ‘‘Icon or Icarus.’’
Sure, he has an outsize personality and a large public following, but he has been careful not to fall foul of the authorities. If anything, he has positioned Alibaba as a useful ally as the government attempts to put Chinese consumers in the driving seat. Spend more, save less is the new mantra. This won’t happen overnight. Shedding the old economic model centered on manufacturing, construction and exports will take time and require complex and painful reforms. Alibaba, and the power of the Internet, are shiny objects that the government can point to.
Q. Alibaba has been working in recent years to reorganize and become more efficient. All tech start-ups go through growing pains. How severe are those pains at Alibaba right now?
A. Alibaba was founded 17 years ago, employs over 38,000 people, and is a listed company on the NYSE. It has experienced lots of ups and downs, both as a private and a public company, and gone through many reorganizations. Alibaba is more of a commerce company than a tech company, although its future is increasingly one in which technology plays a leading role. Jack himself does not have a tech background and unlike, say, Robin Li at Baidu, he has had to defer to colleagues who do.
After a few years of piecemeal international expansion — including a failed attempt to launch its own consumer-facing site in the U.S. — Jack last year brought in former Goldman Sachs banker Michael Evans to oversee its global footprint, with new offices on the East Coast of the U.S. and across Europe.
Q. Ma started out as an outspoken, slightly goofy businessman. Now he is attending major political events like the China Development Forum — which is a major way for Beijing to promote China. Has he chosen to go into politics of his own free will, or has he allowed himself to be co-opted as a matter of survival?
A. Even before he founded Alibaba, Jack was a regular speaker at conferences at home and abroad. His public appearances have been critical for him to grow and maintain his profile. He is the ultimate performer, his folksy charm and seemingly impossible ambitions as effective in English as in Chinese.
Before he founded Alibaba, his third venture, Jack worked as a civil servant in Beijing, giving him valuable insights into the intersection of business and politics in China. This is crucial as he expands his empire beyond e-commerce into areas such as finance. The process isn’t smooth however: Jack has already encountered powerful vested interests such as opposition from state-owned banks alarmed by the rapid growth of his money market fund or plans for an online bank.
Q. Is Alibaba, whose business depends heavily on private vendors using it to sell their wares, really committed to getting rid of counterfeit products as demanded by the Chinese State Administration for Industry and Commerce (S.A.I.C.)?
A. Fakes and unscrupulous traders are part and parcel of commerce. In China, as in the U.S., there are people who actively seek out fakes, people who are unwilling or unable to pay for the real thing.
Simply moving trading online doesn’t eliminate the problem, but it has created tensions between S.A.I.C., the brand owners who suffer from piracy and operators of e-commerce platforms like Alibaba. The short-lived, but very public, spat with S.A.I.C. in January 2015 illustrated that Alibaba has no choice but to step up its efforts to root out fakes on its platforms: to help the government do its job.
Alibaba became famous for Taobao, the platform where small merchants or individuals sell a wide range of third-party products — including fake products, especially in the early days. Merchants who pass off fake products as real can expect to see their store ratings and business suffer. Alibaba can also shut down the Alipay accounts of repeat offenders, and use big data to analyze trading patterns.
But Alibaba’s success hangs increasingly on another platform, Tmall, where brand owners sell their own — real — products, or via large retailers, directly to consumers. Taobao was vital to Alibaba’s past success. Tmall is the key to its future, as Alibaba generates a commission on every sale. By contrast, on Taobao, Alibaba relies purely on advertising revenue.
Q. Alibaba seems to be buying into new areas that could be considered vanity projects, or projects that assist the Chinese government with soft power. Hollywood and The South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong English-language newspaper, are two examples. How much of Ma’s desire for promoting China is involved in these projects?
A. The relatively small — $200 million — purchase of The South China Morning Post will do little to move the needle for Alibaba’s business, raising the question of why the company felt inclined to buy it in the first place. In explaining the purchase, Alibaba vice chairman Joe Tsai vowed to protect the newspaper’s editorial independence. Yet he also voiced frustration at how China is portrayed in Western media. While Alibaba is unlikely to use the paper as a vehicle for promoting itself, it faces an uphill struggle to convince skeptics that it made the purchase for reasons other than helping the Chinese government project its influence in the territory.
Q. How would you describe the differences in entrepreneurial style between Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma? Do you think Facebook, which is now blocked, will enter the China market?
A. Jack is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur: He’s not a tech guy, he didn’t go to Harvard, he even once supplemented his income as an English teacher by buying and selling plastic carpets on the streets. Mark Zuckerberg has a tech background, who leveraged that and good timing while at Harvard to build a massive and almost global social business.
But China will likely remain beyond Facebook’s grasp. China has hardly stood still without Facebook: Tencent’s WeChat is a dominant player in China already, superior in some important ways to Facebook especially in mobile. No doubt Jack and Zuckerberg have explored how they might work together, not least because Tencent is a formidable competitor to Alibaba in social and mobile.
But to enter China, Facebook would have to water down its local product, or de-link it from the rest of the world — which risks alienating customers and the U.S. government. It’s hard to see how Facebook can square the circle. But that doesn’t mean that Mark Zuckerberg won’t keep on trying.