Alibaba’s Jack Ma is taking on Silicon Valley

In the aftermath of the recent U.S. election, as notables from near and far (and really far) made their pilgrimages to Trump Tower hoping to figure out what this most unexpected presidency might look like, these two made the oddest of couples: the tall, elaborately coiffed president-elect and the elfin CEO of the most famous company in China, a country candidate Donald Trump had repeatedly excoriated on the campaign trail as a trade villain.

In the extraordinary life of Ma Yun, known to most people in the West as Jack Ma, this meet and greet on steroids was yet another of many extraordinary moments. Ma, the founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, had come to Manhattan to tell Trump he wanted to help American entrepreneurs sell their goods directly into China—using, of course, his e-commerce site to connect buyers to sellers. As Ma was speaking to the assembled press, Trump at one point leaned into the microphone and chirped, “He loves this country.”

A few seconds later, Trump realized he might have erred. Proclaiming to the world that the most globally visible businessman in a country run by an authoritarian regime that is, at best, a strategic rival of Washington’s “loves” the United States might not be good for Ma back home. So Trump, towering over his tiny counterpart, awkwardly interjected, “He loves China too,” as Ma grinned but said nothing.

That the two men hit it off that day—and friends of each say they did—is not surprising. Ma, like Trump, is brash and blunt, particularly by the standards set for Chinese businessmen, most of whom avoid attention the way Trump avoids strong winds. Not Ma. “He’s an alien,’’ his friend and fellow billionaire Guo Guangchang, founder of the Shanghai conglomerate the Fosun Group, once said. “He’s so out there.” Every year, for example, Ma hosts an annual meeting of “Aliren” (Alibaba people) from all over the world at the company’s headquarters in Hangzhou, about 100 miles south of Shanghai. Employees and customers alike come to hear Ma evangelize for the brand. And evangelize he does, making impassioned speeches about what the company has accomplished each year, as well as what it has failed to do. He invites celebrities and politicians and businesspeople. Arnold Schwarzenegger came while he was governor of California. I’ve seen Ma ably translate a Q&A session with then–U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, and I’ve seen him share that stage with the CEO of eBay, a company he gleefully drove out of China when Meg Whitman (now running Hewlett-Packard) was in charge.

I first got to know Ma while he was in the process of outwitting Whitman in the early 2000s. He sat in his office and, proudly on the record, told story after story of how he thought eBay—then his primary competitor in China—was screwing up. He told me Whitman was making secret visits to the country and spending weeks with her China team, trying to get their strategy right. He even told me where she was staying while there (the private residence wing of the J.W. Marriott in Shanghai). He cackled repeatedly during our conversation, mocking his rival and her company. He was so open that I had a hard time believing I was interviewing a Chinese CEO. After I left his office, I called the Marriott where Ma had said Whitman was holed up. He was right.

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