Setting the Jack Ma story straight

China expert Duncan Clark writes a book about Jack Ma to dispel the myths swirling around his friend who set up Alibaba

ALIBABA: THE HOUSE THAT JACK MA BUILT By Duncan Clark

Ecco/HarperCollins, hardback/287 pages/$33.17 with GST at leading bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 381.1420951 CLA -[BIZ]

Last week, China had its yearly bout of examination fever when about 9.4 million students sat the two-day nationwide university entrance examinations known as the gaokao.

Three decades earlier, a lad named Ma Yun from Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, took that test. He scored 1/120 for mathematics on his first try, 19/120 on his second and 89/120 on his third.

Despite the improvements, his overall score - gaokao's other subjects include English, history and physics - waned with each attempt.

No matter. Today, the 51-year-old is better known as Jack Ma and he is Asia's richest man, with a reported personal worth of US$29.1 billion (S$39.4 billion) last year.

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After setting up a translation service business in January 1994, Ma soon spotted the Internet's potential and, in April 1995, founded China's first online phone directory which he called China Pages. He is now founder-chairman of Alibaba Group, the world's largest collection of e-commerce websites, including its multibillion-dollar Taobao.com, which even provides counselling services for wives with cheating husbands.

Alibaba is now worth more than US$300 billion and is often seen as China's equivalent of Jeff Bezos' Amazon.

British economist and former investment banker Duncan Clark befriended Ma in September 1999, just after he set up Alibaba with Yale-trained Taiwanese lawyer Joe Tsai.

Clark, who has called China home for 22 years, is chairman of the Beijing-based investment advisory firm BDA China, which he founded with mainlander Zhang Bohai in 1994.

In an interview with The Sunday Times last month on the sidelines of a banking conference here at which he and Tsai spoke, Clark said that he wrote a column in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper in the early 1990s on technology developments in China.

"My colleague said, "Hey, go meet Jack." I did, and was impressed with this individual who was saying crazy things such as "We are going to defeat all these Western companies"." Ma now owns SCMP.

Clark and Ma were soon travelling around China together and spoke at the same events at American universities Harvard and Stanford. Today, Ma is so well regarded that United States President Barack Obama broke with protocol last November and moderated a session with him at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation chief executives' summit in Manila.

Clark, a first-time author, said that he wrote the book partly to correct the many myths swirling around Ma, whom he calls "ambitious but humble, and very kind".

For one thing, many people think that Ma is a Harvard alumnus, when his alma mater is the second-rate Hangzhou Teachers College, where he met his wife Cathy Zhang and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English. Ma's only claim to Harvard is speaking there and even then, Clark said, Ma told Harvard students: "You're kind of wasting your time here".

Also, Wikipedia has Ma's parents as musician-storytellers. This error bears correcting because Clark says Ma's slick communication skills, which charmed search engine pioneer Jerry Yang to invest billions in Alibaba, likely came from his parents' love of pingtan, or the Chinese folk art of storytelling through singing and comedic sketches. Ma's father Ma Laifa, was a photographer, and his mother Cui Wencai a factory worker.

This book plugs the gap between communist China's economic turning point in 1992 - when its patriarch Deng Xiaoping steered it away from government-controlled growth to largely unbridled capitalism with the battle cry "To be rich is glorious" - and Alibaba's initial public offering on Sept 10, 2014, which, at US$25 billion, is the biggest public listing in history.

The first third of Clark's well- structured and objective book is dedicated to setting Ma's backstory straight and the rest is an insider's expert dissection of the evolution of entrepreneurship in China.

His most telling chapter is the book's final one in which he muses about whether Ma is a China icon or a latter-day Icarus, who donned wax wings to fly, only to perish when the sun melted his wings.

Clark said: "Icarus was a victim of soaring ambition and Jack is unbelievably ambitious. And China now has a Sun King in (Chinese President) Xi (Jinping), who, some people say, might rule for another 20 years.

"That's why I say the most interesting chapter in the book is Chapter 13 - and there are only 12 chapters in the book."


FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

Former investment banker Duncan Clark sets the record straight in his book when it comes to Jack Ma's backstory.
ALIBABA: THE HOUSE THAT JACK MA BUILT By Duncan Clark

1 What does it take to do business in China today?

2 Why is it now so hard for Westerners to make headway in business there?

3 How might businesses in the East and West work best together?

4 How have ties between the Chinese Communist Party and China's entrepreneurs evolved?

5 How might businesspeople today balance a head for business with a heart for people?


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. British investment adviser and China expert Duncan Clark is in full command of his material. He charts the history of Chinese technopreneurs in sparse, snappy prose that will have many racing towards the conclusion.

2. Clark brings many relevant perspectives to his take on Jack Ma and the Alibaba Group. He is an economist who delved into investment banking for four years. He set up his own China-based technology consultancy in 1994, and now supports many start-ups in China. The fluent Mandarin speaker, who reads Chinese well too, also counts among his friends his classmate Shirley Lin, who was the first to invest in Ma's Alibaba business when she was at Goldman Sachs, as well as his tennis buddy Shao Bo, the founder of EachNet, an early rival of Alibaba's.

3. His understanding of China's economy and its society comes from having lived there for 22 years. So he can tell readers things such as how expensive fresh milk and faxes were in the 1990s. All of which adds up to a vivid portrait of life in Ma's world. For example, recalling how he met Alibaba's 18 founders for the first time in 1999, he could count them "by the number of toothbrushes jammed into mugs on a shelf in the bathroom".

4. There are hundreds of books in Chinese on Ma's roots and motivations, including a biography by his student- turned-personal assistant Chen Wei called I Am Still Ma Yun. But there is still precious little in English of Ma's life and times. So Clark's book bridges this gulf well.

5. It is a compelling study not only of an audacious man and his company, but also on how to sustain a business by serving customers meaningfully and nurturing one's employees through pin-sharp twists and turns of disruptive technology and what Clark calls the "randomness" of China's government policies.

THE BAD

1. Clark and his editors could have perked up this serious, though deftly written, tome with colour visuals. The black-and-white photographs are relevant and interesting but add to the greyness of the book's overall look.

THE IFFY

1. Clark did not get to interview Ma, so this book is bereft of fresh perspectives from the man himself and is devoid of any colour from his family life.


Fact file: He knows less about Jack Ma now

At the launch of Briton Duncan Clark's first book at the Book Passage bookstore in San Francisco in late April, an urbane Chinese woman in her 20s came up to him and said: "I just want to thank you for your book which has the face of a Chinese person on it."

That book is Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, which Clark wrote in 12 months, on an advance of US$200,000 (S$271,000) from his publisher HarperCollins.

He had come to know the editors through his good friend Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club (1989).

Ma, who is now Asia's richest man, is also a friend of Clark's, but did not help him write the book.

In an interview here on May 25, Clark said: "Jack had already said many times that he was not going to help anyone write his book. He said, 'I need to write my own book one day and I'm going to call it 1,001 Mistakes.'

"Then last year, he said, 'I don't know if I'm ever going to be objective enough to write that book.' So I thought, 'Well, if he's not going to write it, somebody should.'"

The genial and glib 46-year-old author, who talks very fast, has winning candour. He said: "I know less about him personally now than I did when I first met him in 1999, in the sense that even though he's the same person, he's surrounded by layers of security and trying to get to him is not easy."

What does Ma think of his effort then?

Well, for one thing, Alibaba's global head of public relations, Ms Jennifer Kuperman, walked over to that same Book Passage book launch from her office nearby and told him: "Jack loves your book." Clark said: "Then Alibaba started retweeting some of my tweets so that was a good sign. And Jennifer got promoted shortly after that."

At the outset, Ms Kuperman told him that Alibaba would give him access to its employees, but would not check his manuscript.

Later, after he sent printed copies of his book to Alibaba's San Francisco office, he learnt that the company had 12 teams poring over each of the book's 12 chapters, to report to their bosses what he had written.

An economist by training, Clark used to pitch telecommunications deals to Singtel and also advised Neptune Orient Lines when he was a banker at Morgan Stanley in the early 1990s.

He left in 1994 to set up his investment advisory firm BDA China in Shanghai with his friend Zhang Bohai.

He and his Chinese partner Robin Wang now divide their time between Beijing and their other homes in London, Paris and California.

Clark is a sought-after commentator globally on developments in China, having chaired the British Chamber of Commerce in China from 2011 to 2012.

Asked what it was like writing his first book, he said: "Day One, getting the book deal, was the most exciting. Day Two was the scariest. My journalist friends in China, who are lovely, cynical people, said, 'There you go, taking three years off to write it' and when I said, 'No, I'm looking to finish this in 12 months', they said, 'You're nuts.'"

But he did just that, thanks largely to Alibaba's "very helpful" vice-chairman Joe Tsai.

His book has since been lauded by, among others, the Financial Times and The New York Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Setting the Jack Ma story straight'. Print Edition | Subscribe