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
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.
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.
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.