Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

China's Bezos, Jack Ma of Alibaba: Being Friends With Russia Is Smart - Interview


This might sound odd, but an impulse towards establishing dialogue between Russia and the Anglo-American Alliance might have been triggered by the post. In this case the Russian Post, that registered a subsidiary in China. It appears that 90% of international shipments of Russian Post come from China. Why? There must be some business, that Americans wanted to purchase, by the way, but the Chinese decided they didn't need help to tap into the market including the Russian one.

Everybody who's ever purchased something online knows this logo. Alibaba - a group of companies founded in China that has revolutionized online sales offers everything, from hair combs and socks to furniture and complex devices along with global shipping right to your doorstep.

Let's quickly simulate the process. One can place an order using a PC or a smartphone. I select an item, I won't tell you what exactly for now. Pay for it with my bank card. Enter my address. And done. After being processed at the data center, my order is selected at the giant warehouse among all sorts of other things after which one of these nimble robots receives a relevant command. Without ever colliding with its robot colleagues it moves through this bustle it carries my order on its back and unloads it. Then, the order gets stronger packaging and travels to the client by road, sea, or air, along with millions of other parcels.

We'll use the magic of television and get our box immediately. Right here and now. Naturally, the delivery takes more time in real life. We can open the box now and check out what I ordered. Here it is. A reserve remote for our screen just to be on the safe side. Let's see it in action and display the photo of the man who's one of the visionaries behind this high-tech revolution.

Ma Yun who the world knows as Jack Ma. This September, he, one of the richest people in China will withdraw from running his business to focus on charity. But so far, he's still in business. We've been long asking him for an interview. After finally getting invited, we headed to his home city of Hangzhou to check out his creation from the inside and talk to Ma himself.

There's a sin I must confess. 20 years ago, or even 10 I thought that the Chinese had finally traded their bikes for cars but the times when they were inventing stuff were long over. They were the ones who invented the compass, gunpowder, and paper in medieval times. But ten years ago, it seemed that they were just copying something invented elsewhere. However, only a decade later and there's been a revolution. The rest of the world now mimics the Chinese technologies.

- Thank you for having me here, Mr. Ma.

- Thank you.

- I can't believe that I'm sitting here with you.

- Thank you.

- I must confess something.

- Go on.

- The more I visit China, the less I understand it. Perhaps that has something to do with how fast everything changes. But my question is the following: Is China's success still based on collectivism? Or is China propelled forward by individual talent?

Jack Ma, Alibaba Group Founder:

- Well, let me answer it this way: You say that the more you visit China the less you understand it. You know, I'm 100% Chinese, but I get the same impression that I can't fully comprehend. But I feel proud of the leap that China has taken. That means that other countries can also do that. If you open your eyes, embrace the change and begin building the new self for the future then, anything can happen.

- That sounds encouraging. So the Chinese experience isn't unique?

- No, that's a human thing. It's the way society grows. But back to your question about collectivism and individualism. If we talk about a purely collective system that the Soviet Union used to have and China used to have until recently it's not very efficient in my opinion. But the pure individualism as a society drive is also extremely problematic. That's why I believe that it's necessary to combine the two systems. We're living in the age of teamwork. That's what we believe in and what makes our country successful.

- Are you self-sufficient? Will we see China become less exposed to external influence and more engaging towards the rest of the world?

- I believe that at an early stage any country can be self-sufficient. But if it wants to develop so that its citizens began thinking globally and looking into the future it must be collectively open to the global community. The whole world is interlinked. It's hard to imagine an isolated country being self-sufficient. It's about responsibility.

- I was in one of your supermarkets today. It had food from all over the world. And I must note that seafood was unfortunately represented by Norway, Greenland, other countries…

- Canada and New Zealand as well.

- But not Russia.

- I hope that we'll be able to establish these kinds of shipments. That's only the beginning. I've been to Russia multiple times and I love Russian seafood. It's amazing. But you see, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the US have an established export system with us, which is much better.

- Although geographically, they are located much further. And we're right around the corner.

- Yes. But everything depends on the development of market relations. I always say that Russia and China have great relations on the political level. Our leaders are working hard to maintain them. But unfortunately, it's not the same on the business level.

- The reason why I used Russian seafood as an example is that your company is launching a new project in Russia. Why Russia? How is this project different from the ones you launched before? And what are the chances that the platform you're launching in cooperation with Mail.Ru, Megafon, and the RDIF will help small and medium Russian businesses export their products worldwide and not just consume Chinese goods? How're you going to do that?

- First, many Russians ask me that question: Why Russia? I always reply: Why not Russia?

- OK.

- We've been working in Russia for quite some time. Unfortunately, and this doesn't make sense to me, delivery usually takes about 30-40 days. At the same time, major companies don't need our formula they've got money and resources.

- And connections in the government.

- Right.

- But what about, say, designers or ice cream makers?

- Oh, there are so many talented entrepreneurs in Russia who offer a wide spectrum of goods that could be sold online.

- But that doesn't mean we don't need major companies anymore. We do need them to implement major projects.

- Of course, we need them.

- I admit I was surprised when I was talking to one of your managers while I was preparing for this interview and asked him about his attitude towards our data storage law and whether he finds it to be too harsh. And he said, "It might be but who cares if that's the law? If we work in Russia and have to store our data we'll do that." That's a rather calm approach. Many companies are bitter against that law.

- You know, we're used to a system like that in China. We have a lot of laws and regulations here.

- You do?

- Yes, even though I believe they aren't justified in relation to such innovative companies like ours. But we respect the law. Russia's not the first country to impose local regulations on our operations. However, if Russia says, "Forget it! We don't want our young people to have decent jobs." Then, we'll…

- Well, Russia won't say that.

- Of course, nobody's going to say that. It's like a wedding - a mere beginning.

- I like that comparison. In one of your speeches, you said "Fall in love with the authorities, but don't marry them."

- No, mine was a bit different. "Don't marry the authorities until your love is strong enough." Love and respect towards the authorities are one thing but marriage is something different.

- That's why they gave me a pillow with this quote.

- That's right.

- How would you translate it?

- Do everything according to your abilities. Don't overwork. Everyone should do good things for society.

- I love the Chinese tradition to make pillows like this so I'll put it back and get to more pressing issues of the world. I've noticed a chair here which belonged to the Chinese President as well as your photo with a US President, Clinton, I believe. And naturally, you've met President Putin. Can you imagine some common interests that could bring together the sides of this triangle?

- Well first, I wouldn't call globalization a failure but rather a mishap. There are a lot of issues in the world we should be solving together like diseases, pollution, various types of cancer, or poverty. Right now, we have more instruments and resources to tackle those threats than we've ever had.

- A lot of people around the globe are afraid to launch their own business for different reasons be it bureaucratic obstacles, health, fear, and many other reasons. What advice can you offer to those people?

- Yes, I meet a lot of worried people. They're worried because they have something to lose. When I started I had nothing.

- Is that true?

- I was earning $10 a month.

- $10 a month?

- Yeah. $10 a month... Something like that back in the '90s. My job was the only thing to lose. But with a paycheck like that, there was no reason to hold on to it. I'd rather find a better place. If you have a rich dad and a decent job, you're naturally afraid to lose everything. There's only one way to start your own business. Do that, feel the confidence, just try it.

- We need to print that on banners and hang them everywhere. You've got a great understanding of the world.

- Thank you.

- Are business and the government enemies or partners? Is there a "vs" between them?

- Well, business and the government need to work together. The government sees the whole picture while we see the economy. So I think if you're rich, don't think about power. And if you're in power, don't think about money. Because power and money together are like a bomb.

- Let's get back to the global situation. The times are hard.

- This is a hard but not the hardest period.

- You think so?

- Sure. Take World War II, take the first one. Humanity is facing a lot of problems but we definitely aren't living in the worst period of our history.

- I should've asked it but you've already partially answered my next question. What would be your advice for the people in charge of resolving global issues? Is there some formula to resolve them?

- I see the world rapidly changing. Young people are more open-minded and get a lot of information online. They've got their own view of themselves. Naturally, we all have different views and values. But that's why our world is so diverse. That's why I'm not you and you're not me. But we're sitting here together. That's my approach, our approach.

- I started our interview with a confession and I'll end it with another one. I'm 8 years younger than you. You were born in 1964 and I was born in 1972. But I'm afraid to surround myself with so many young people like you do. Today, I noticed that all your employees that were helping us organize the interview were aged between 30 and 35. Aren't you afraid of the youth?

- No, I'm proud of them. I'm very proud of them. And I'm so happy for them.

- But they're inexperienced, have different views haven't read the books we've read. They're always browsing the Internet.

- That's what my father used to tell me and my grandfather used to tell my father. My grandfather used to say, "Oh, you don't know anything yet. And should listen to me." But my dad said a better thing. "You're not that experienced right now and you have a different world view." You know, the issue is not that young people don't understand us. The issue is that we don't listen to young people, don't respect them. Once they're older, they'll say "I see, he was right." Changes do happen. You need to trust our youth. Trusting them means trusting in your future.

- So you mean both things and people can be upgraded?

- Sure.

Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

- Thank you very much.

- Thank you, Sergey.

Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

Our commenting rules: You can say pretty much anything except the F word. If you are abusive, obscene, or a paid troll, we will ban you. Full statement from the Editor, Charles Bausman.