Jack Ma’s American Journey

Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba Group

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In the Hutong
And…We’re Back!
1151 hrs.

Amidst all of the recent speculation about Alibaba, Jack Ma, and his intentions toward Yahoo!, the real story keeps slipping below the fold: Jack Ma’s pledge to spend a year living in the United States. It is hard to discern whether that was a genuine promise or a trial balloon, but let’s assume that Jack intends to carry through on it.

Mr. Ma deserves praise for what cannot be an easy move. He appears to understand that if you are going to do business in one of the most complex and competitive markets in the world, you had better know that market in your guts, and not designate some subordinate to do that understanding for you. It is long past time for American and European CEOs to start doing the same in China. We are waiting for the first one to do so, and that little problem is a factor in the challenges that foreign companies face here.

Yet if Mr. Ma believes that his expressed desire to live in America will soften the discomfort of the American public and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States will feel toward the purchase of Yahoo! by a Chinese company, he is too late. Assuring both Washington DC and Main Street USA that Alibaba is not the long arm of the Party and is trustworthy enough to be the custodian of a massive storehouse of information on American citizens will demand a lengthy campaign, not well-meaning gestures. A year under American law building visibility, accessibility, and trust is a good start, but no more, and any bid for Yahoo is likely to happen sooner than that.

Finally, before venturing into the North American wilds, both Alibaba and Mr. Ma would do well to consider an adjustment in their approach to the global media. I spend a lot of time with journalists who represent the world’s leading media outlets in China, and whenever the subject of Alibaba comes up, the response is always a shaking of the head. The word is that not only does Mr. Ma appear increasingly inaccessible to the global media, his international PR staff is allegedly not above haranguing journalists whose coverage of Alibaba is deemed less than supportive. If true, this is an approach that will make neither Ma nor Alibaba many friends in the United States. The primary coverage of the company is still going to come from China, and alienating foreign correspondents ill-serves the purposes of a company with audiences outside of the PRC. The global media can be allies or enemies in Alibaba’s leap abroad, an effort that will demand the help of all the friends the company can get. At the moment, that list of friends – inside the Beltway, across America, and in the fourth estate – seems a bit short for Alibaba’s ambitions.

Time to change that.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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8 Responses to Jack Ma’s American Journey

  1. Somehow, I doubt that Jack will be living in conditions even remotely approaching those of his customers and partners in the U.S. Rupert Murdoch can live anywhere he wants, but that doesn’t endear him to his hosts, nor make his companies above scrutiny. In the end, this is likely to be just a long vacation and PR stunt for Jack. Maybe he can take it a step further and join Warren Buffett in paying his fair share of taxes on the money he makes from Americans?

  2. “Maybe he can take it a step further and join Warren Buffett in paying his fair share of taxes on the money he makes from Americans?”

    Where’d this come from? So you’re takeaway from all the Buffett quotes in recent weeks, is that he pays his fair share of taxes?

    And we’re supposed to feel some kind of enmity towards Ma for visiting the US? What the…?

  3. With many a pioneer/first move can come advantages down the road that may not be immediately recognisable. I too doubt that this is about Yahoo if it happens. It could be more about just being the first and getting the title as such locked away for future exploitation/parading/leveraging..

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  8. …also it seems to me that Jack Ma probably thinks he’s another Apple, free to abuse the press however he likes because he’ll speak to the people directly.

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