E-commerce king rides ‘blind tigers’ to success

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong Economic Journal claimed that Alibaba founder Jack Ma planned to move to Hong Kong next year. The news soon went viral on Chinese social media sites.

Recent statistics show 47% of Chinese millionaires plan to leave, mainly to escape economic uncertainty and environmental decay. But Ma departing would be an extraordinary blow to China’s self-image – he is its greatest rags-to-riches hero, an inspiration to a generation.

Ma quickly put the rumour to rest. Speaking to reporters in Hong Kong, he was animated and forceful.

“Hangzhou is where I was born, went to school and started my business,” he said, speaking of his coastal Chinese hometown.

He added that he harboured no prejudices towards Chinese citizens who moved abroad. “I like my friends [in Hong Kong], its climate, its food, and especially I like that it is part of China,” he added.

On Monday, the Alibaba Group, which launched as a “business-to-business marketplace for global trade” 15 years ago, opened on the New York stock exchange.

The initial public offering has made Ma, 50, China’s richest man – he owns $21.9-billion in assets, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Although Ma said that he struck out on his own last year to pursue a philanthropic agenda – making China’s “water clearer, skies bluer, and food more secure” – he is still clearly Alibaba’s top decision-maker, with a 9% stake in the company.

Ma was born two years before the start of China’s cultural revolution. His grandfather, a nationalist party official before the communists came to power, was persecuted under Mao Zedong; his parents were performers of Ping Tan, a traditional form of theatre. Ma did poorly in maths as a student, but excelled in English. He graduated in 1988, and taught English for years at the Hangzhou Institute of Electronic Engineering.

Ma first experienced the internet in 1995 and quickly became obsessed. That year he launched his first internet venture, an online directory called China Pages, but he quit after the government forced him into a joint-venture with a state-owned firm. In 1999 he started Alibaba with 17 friends and $60?000.

At the time, e-commerce was unheard of in China. “I called myself a blind man riding on the back of blind tigers,” he once said. –

© Guardian News & Media 2014Rags-to-riches hero: Jack Ma is lauded in China. Photo: Reuters

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