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Alibaba bets on do-it-yourself globalisation

The Chinese e-commerce group aims to break down trade barriers and become a a champion of the global economy. But it has struggled in the US and faces competition from copycats at home.

Alibaba is the company that likes to think it's a country. Mr Jack Ma, the former English teacher who founded the group, works the stage like a seasoned diplomat. At the G-20 meeting of global leaders in Hangzhou last year, he hosted Australia's Malcolm Turnbull, Canada's Justin Trudeau and Italy's then Premier Matteo Renzi.

In January, Mr Ma became the first Chinese businessman to sit down publicly with Mr Donald Trump after the US election - a full month before the US President spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since then, he has met the leaders of Argentina, Australia, Israel, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Mr Ma's ambitions for Alibaba, the e-commerce company worth US$309 billion (S$427 billion) that began life in his Hangzhou apartment, are equally global. Come 2036, he wants sales across its platforms to be bigger than the gross domestic product of the world's fifth-biggest economy, outranked only by the US, China, Japan and the European Union. It is aiming for two billion customers, which on current numbers would be one in every four people on the planet.

To achieve these goals, he has proposed ideas that sound more like the projects of a politician than a business leader. In order to strengthen the company's crucial technology backbone, he pledged in March that "we will build Alibaba's own 'Nasa' ", a reference to the US space agency that masterminded the moon landings.

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With global trade talks stalling, he has also unveiled a trading platform he hopes will serve as a sort of World Trade Organisation (WTO) for small and medium-sized businesses. "I think for the next 10 to 20 years, globalisation should be driven by business people," he said recently. He calls the project "e-WTO".

For all its dizzying international plans, however, Alibaba has so far struggled to gain a major foothold in the US - something the group hopes to reverse with a plan to generate a million jobs in the US on its e-commerce platform - or in Europe. It faces intense competition at home and the persistent speculation of a political backlash from Beijing.

Plenty of other Chinese companies have stumbled as they tried to expand overseas. Yet few observers are willing to bet against the group.


Come 2036, e-commerce company Alibaba, now worth US$309 billion (S$427 billion), wants sales across its platforms to be bigger than the gross domestic product of the world's fifth-biggest economy. PHOTO: REUTERS

 

"If globalisation got pregnant and had twin boys, they would be named Jeff Bezos (the Amazon founder) and Jack Ma," says Mr Michael Zakkour at Tompkins, a supply chain consultancy. "They are the perfect manifestation of globalisation 2.0."

GOING GLOBAL

In China, Alibaba's tentacles reach into almost every aspect of life: shopping, finance, chatting, healthcare, entertainment and news.

You can go for weeks in China without cash, swiping your phone to pay for coffee, clothing or utility bills. So ubiquitous is Alipay, its online payment platform, that even some rough sleepers accept donations via it.
 

Alibaba is responsible for one-tenth of China's retail sales and has the biggest money market fund. It is the company that chased eBay out of China and bested Yahoo, acquiring its operations there in 2005. 

A couple of cousins in search of easy money in Hangzhou netted only about 2,000 yuan (S$405) from robbing three stores, proof that Alipay and rival WeixinPay have disrupted the business of burglary.

Alibaba is responsible for one-tenth of China's retail sales and has the biggest money market fund (Yu'e Bao has 1.14 trillion yuan under management). It is the company that chased eBay out of China and bested Yahoo, acquiring its operations there in 2005.
 

In its bid to increase its US presence, Alibaba has adopted a plan that it hopes will appeal to the Trump White House, promising to create one million US jobs by getting cherry farmers, dressmakers and even candlestick makers to sell to China over Alibaba's platforms.

Mr Joe Tsai, executive vice-chairman, describes the group as "a big incubator of ideas". Those futuristic visions include facial recognition payment and one-stop consultation-to-pharmacy online healthcare services. Alibaba's mergers and acquisitions team is constantly on the prowl for investments; as well as myriad start-ups, it has stakes in Snap and Lyft.

Not all its operations make money. Its cloud business may be among the biggest new ventures, but it loses eight cents on every dollar. Cainiao, the logistics platform that underpins the asset-lite e-commerce operation and delivers 57 million packages a day, bleeds cash. Alibaba Pictures is warning of losses of US$140 million. That does not faze the company, which uses its e-commerce operation to finance new and fledgling businesses and build its own ecosystem.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Alibaba, ironically, is copycats at home. Its peers - Baidu and Tencent, who together with Alibaba comprise China's BAT tech trinity of Internet giants - are jostling beside it in virtually every sphere.

The formula seems to be working: For the past fiscal year to the end of March, it increased revenues 56 per cent to US$23 billion and generated net income of US$6 billion, making it considerably more profitable than Amazon.

Outside China, Alibaba's biggest reach is in South-east Asia. It has a controlling stake in Lazada, the Indonesia-based e-commerce group and, together with affiliate Ant Financial, a stake in India's PayTM that enables payments with the swipe of a phone.

Beyond the region, however, Alibaba's footprint is so far more limited and the company has been on the acquisition trail to bolster its global coverage.

"Right now, I'm a little bit sceptical," says one consultant who works in the sector. "Alibaba has failed to go after Europe. A lot of other Chinese players have struggled as they've expanded, in the US in particular."

Alibaba's own early American adventure fell flat. Its 11 Main boutique e-commerce operation was sold in mid-2015 after a year. At least two of its investments, in messaging app Tango and "deep-linking" search engine Quixey, have stumbled.

Alibaba shrugs off the missteps. Its aim in many of these projects, it says, is to learn as much as it can, and in any case it scores plenty of financial wins too. Jet.com, the e-commerce marketplace that it partly owned and was bought by Walmart for US$3.3 billion last year, is a case in point.

The group has used the growing numbers of Chinese tourists overseas to ramp up growth in Alipay's international business. About 110,000 stores accept Alipay. It is also finding new partners. One, signed earlier this month with First Data, makes Alipay an option for the commercial technology provider's 4.5 million US business users.

Dr Richard Windsor of independent research house Radio Free Mobile says Alipay is Alibaba's Trojan horse into the US market. If fully implemented, the First Data deal would give it four million US outlets in one swoop - putting it on a par with ApplePay and making it easier for the more than three million Chinese visitors a year to the US.

But Dr Windsor cautions that greater availability may not translate into greater usage as Alipay's QR code payment system "leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to easy and fun user experience" compared with alternatives in the US. "An experience that is mediocre by developed market standards is a huge improvement on the offline experience in China, which is why I think QR codes have worked in China but failed in developed markets," he wrote in a note to clients.

TRADING WITHOUT FRONTIERS

Controversies have also dogged it overseas. There is a probe by the US Securities Exchange Commission into its metric for gross merchandise volume, and late last year Washington placed Taobao, Alibaba's consumer e-commerce unit, on its "notorious markets" for peddling fake goods.

While recently, Alibaba has taken strides towards clearing its sites of fake goods - something of a Sisyphean task - Mr Ma's earlier quip that fakes were often of "better quality and better price than the real names" still rankles with brands and regulators.

Perhaps Mr Ma's biggest gambit is the new global trading platform that Alibaba is developing. First unveiled last year, the electronic world trade platform touches all the classic Alibaba buttons: small business, inclusivity - and the initiative seized from government by Mr Ma.

The Doha Round, the long period of trade negotiations under the WTO that started in 2001, is "such a long round, I feel sorry for these WTO guys", Mr Ma said recently in Malaysia, the first overseas member of the platform. The e-WTO will essentially provide the plumbing for cross-border trade: logistics, managing Customs clearance and securing favourable tariffs.

Alibaba kicked off its grand plan for global trade without frontiers with a bilateral deal designed to ease the passage of goods shipped by smaller businesses between China and Malaysia. The pact, established as a public-private partnership in Malaysia's digital free trade zone, will focus on infrastructure, including a fulfilment centre and cooperation on electronic payments and financing. So far, it is strictly logistics: Favourable tariffs are, however, still under discussion.

It is understood to be in talks aimed at making Russia the next hub, one of the biggest markets for international e-commerce site AliExpress, in a move that would be even more challenging.

There are plenty of obstacles ahead for Mr Ma's plan, such as the backlash against trade liberalisation. But if the project gains momentum, he will be able to demonstrate that business - and not government - is flying the flag for globalisation.

In its bid to increase its US presence, Alibaba has adopted a plan that it hopes will appeal to the Trump White House, promising to create one million US jobs by getting cherry farmers, dressmakers and even candlestick makers to sell to China over Alibaba's platforms.

Step one takes place next month at an inaugural conference to showcase the initiative in Detroit - a former industrial city whose decline has been attributed by some to globalisation.

To critics that dismiss the million-jobs pledge as pie in the sky, Alibaba points to China, where in the past 15 years it claims to have created 33 million jobs: 10 million merchants on Taobao create "a minimum" three jobs apiece, including in supporting services such as logistics.

Still, Beijing-based consultant Duncan Clark, who wrote a book on Alibaba, says: "There have been all types of these platforms to bring niche businesses online."

Alibaba will have to win out over the likes of arts and crafts site Etsy, and bigger players such as eBay and Amazon.

Others believe it has a fighting chance. "Three years ago (Americans) didn't know who Alibaba was, that's why going public was so important," says another analyst. "I'll bet you many American farmers watch CNBC. They're businessmen at the end of the day."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Alibaba, ironically, is copycats at home. Its peers - Baidu and Tencent, who together with Alibaba comprise China's BAT tech trinity of Internet giants - are jostling beside it in virtually every sphere.

Tencent has a 37 per cent share of the US$5.5 trillion payments market, to AliPay's 51 per cent. All have amassed stakes in ride-hailing apps, food delivery, bike-sharing and media apps, when the cost for Internet companies of buying content such as video streaming is rocketing.

The desire to be present in every area is "like playing a game of Chinese checkers, not missing a trick", says Mr Clark.

Facing all these challenges, Alibaba says it is relying on fear to keep it ahead. It is run by a man with neither government connections nor engineering credentials. It came into being just before the dot.com bubble burst and hatched its core Taobao business as the deadly Sars virus shut down Hong Kong and parts of southern China.

Mr Tsai told investors in February: "Our mindset is constantly paranoid. Which we believe is the hallmark of a great technology company."

TIES TO BEIJING

Dealing with foreign leaders is not the only political challenge facing Mr Ma. Being a multi-billionaire in nominally communist China may no longer be an anomaly, but running a large company that pervades most aspects of life and is disrupting industries - many of which are heavily state-owned - puts Alibaba in an intriguing space.

Speculation over Mr Ma's relations with Beijing often surfaces, most recently after his meeting with Mr Trump, which was not cleared by the government.

The upcoming shake-up in the top leadership in the 19th Party Congress in November may prove a less kindly backdrop for Alibaba.

Mr Clark says Premier Li Keqiang was a big proponent of the Internet as a driver of reform and he regularly name-checked Alibaba and other Internet companies in speeches.

But Mr Li's views on its potential have been eclipsed by those of President Xi. "Generally, in terms of Internet potential, Xi is less enamoured, partly because the Internet also takes jobs away," says Mr Clark.

Alibaba has clashed with regulators at home: It hit out at a critical report over fake goods by the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, dubbing it an "inaccurate and unfair attack".

There have been spats with the country's big state-owned banks, which are irked at the outflows of deposits and customers into Alibaba's financial products. Mr Ma further fanned the flames by saying markets should not be run "by monopolies and those with power".

But even if some Chinese leaders start to turn against Mr Ma, his last line of defence is Alibaba's indispensability. "Is Alibaba making itself too big to nail?" asks Mr Clark.

"By intertwining itself with the consumer economy, whose growth it has played a key role in stimulating, Alibaba can hope to insulate itself from some of the regulatory risks in taking on incumbents."

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Alibaba bets on do-it-yourself globalisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe