Australia’s Jack in the box

By Tom Parker

To most outsiders, China is comfortable with contradictions. 

A centrally planned economy under the control of the Communist Party that allows market forces to exist with Chinese characteristics. The internet without Facebook. Makeshift migrant workers dormitories next to six star hotels. Even Maoism , an ideology that unified China, claims that contradiction is present in all things and allows all objects to exist.

Alibaba, an e-commerce eco-system, was created among these contradictions and its founder Jack Ma has become the face of modern China that celebrates entrepreneurship and encourages consumerism. 

Jack is a charismatic demigod, revered by Presidents, CEOs and students, he is comfortable talking with celebrities and business leaders in flawless English interspersed with Yoda like words of wisdom. 

Jack spent Chinese New Year in Australia, holidaying in Tasmania, donating $20 million to set up a bursary at Newcastle University and opening Alibaba’s regional office in Melbourne. The link between Australia and Jack Ma is strong, “this is the country I love most outside of China. This is the country that inspired me.” 

The inspiration came from Ken Morley and his family, who visited Hangzhou in 1980 as part of an Australia China Friendship Society tour of China. Ken was a committed socialist, a son of a miner and seamstress, and member of the Community Party of Australia. While in Hangzhou, Ken’s son David connected with a local boy Jack, who was keen to practice his English by the side of West Lake.

Upon the family's return to China, a pen pal relationship was established between the boys, but it was Ken who helped Jack with his constant pursuit of self-betterment, inviting him to stay with the family in Newcastle in 1985. Before arriving in Australia, a 19 year old, university student, Jack had “thought China was the richest, happiest country in the world” but “after this trip” he realised China needed to change and that you needed to use your own mind to judge and to think. 

The contradiction that an Australian socialist helped shape and unlock the potential of one of China’s greatest capitalists, reflects the need for Australian business to avoid seeking comfort in binary opposition and embrace contradictions when engaging with the China market. 

Jack Ma’s speech to the Melbourne audience was insightful for providing context and direction to President Xi Jinping’s poetic Davos address, where he likened the recent retreat from globalisation to hiding in a cupboard, avoiding the wind and the rain but also missing out on the sunshine. 

Alibaba has been enjoying the sunshine, and Jack indicated that globalisation, as witnessed by the triumvirate of Trump, Brexit and the rebirth of One Nation is suffering growing pains, suggesting that we need a new model for globalisation 2.0 that is more inclusive – not leaving anyone behind. 

According to President Trump in his inauguration address, globalisation threw up another contradiction with the wealth of America’s middle class being “ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world”. 

Jack Ma’s solution was to ensure that his concept of globalisation should be more inclusive, a win-win outcome rather than a designated winner and loser. He shared Alibaba’s approach to management, where he indicated women were the “secret sauce” of his business; comprising 48% of all staff including 34% in senior management. Alibaba has a female CEO, COO, and Chief People Officer, and he believes “women make a world of difference” and the “user friendliness is the key to success and women do better at that.”

Jack believes women, people under 30 and SMEs are the future of globalisation and, in GDP terms, Alibaba is the 21st largest economy globally. Incredible to think that a former tour guide and English teacher, who was shown the world through the eyes of an Australian socialist now runs a company the size of a member country of the G20 and is promoting a new form of globalisation – perhaps Mao was foretelling the future when contractions were everywhere and allowed everything to exist – including Jack Ma. 

Tom Parker attended the opening of the Australia & New Zealand office as a guest of Alibaba. 

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