July 31, 2021

Who really is Jack Ma, the richest man in China?

Author – Camille Hamet
Chinese billionaire and 17e richest man in the world has come a long way. World famous, he no longer smells of sanctity with the regime.

The richest man in China is missing. It’s been more than two months since the multi-billionaire at the head of Alibaba has not given any more news, after having publicly criticized the Chinese financial system. Under Xi Jinping, no one is beyond the Party’s reach, whether he is the chairman of Interpol, the richest actress in the country, or sitting on a fortune estimated at nearly $ 60 billion, like this. is the case of Jack Ma.

At a conference in October 2020, Ma dared to criticize the Chinese banking system, calling for its deep reform. After the statements, Beijing took action against its companies, including an investigation into the operation of Alibaba, which could fall under antitrust law. Usually talkative on networks, the 17e richest man on the planet hasn’t tweeted for three months, and his absence was noticed in the final episode of his show Africa’s Business Heroes.

After several months of silence, actress Fan Bingbing issued a long statement of apology and paid a heavy price for her attempt at tax evasion. Meng Hongwei, the former Chinese president of Interpol, for his part was sentenced to 13 years in prison after paying the price of an anti-corruption investigation. What about Jack Ma? While waiting to find out, here is a portrait of the eccentric entrepreneur.

A bad student

For the 18 years of the famous Chinese commerce site for Alibaba companies, on September 11, 2017, the boss did not hesitate to put on a show. Jack Ma, whose fortune is estimated by the magazine Forbes at $ 39 billion, arrived on a large stage on the back of a motorcycle, dressed in a gold suit and a glittery mask. Then he swayed on the title “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and under the amused gaze of his 40,000 employees, who should not have been unduly surprised. Already in September 2009, for the ten years of Alibaba, Jack Ma had not hesitated to go on stage to interpret The Lion King, decked out in a blonde wig and a red crest.

But what kind of man is hiding under the disguises and the sequins?

1is January 1980. As usual, Ma Yun, a 15-year-old Chinese teenager recently renamed Jack by an American tourist, gets on his bike and goes to the Shangrila hotel in his town of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, to practice basic English. That day, he made a decisive encounter there. It is Duncan Clark, a former investment banker at Morgan Stanley who has now settled in China for more than twenty years, who recounts it in a biography published in France last March, Alibaba,

Ken and Judy Morley are an Australian couple who came to Hangzhou through the China-Australia Friendship Association, an organization that does not hide its sympathy for Communist China. One of their three children, David, takes a liking to Jack. The two teenagers play long games of frisbee by the Hangzhou lake. The rest of the family is also conquered by the young Chinese, ” who really wanted to practice his English and was very friendly “. He then sent them letters in that language and asked them to correct his mistakes. When the Morleys return to China for the second time, they are invited to have dinner at the Ma’s little house. And finally, on their return to Australia, Ken decides to financially support Jack in his education, at the rate of a check every six months.

But Jack Ma is first of all a source of disappointment for his benefactor. He failed for the first time at gaokao – equivalent of the baccalaureate which determines the rank of the university to which the pupil can claim – because of his grade in mathematics. Then a second time. It was only on his third attempt that he passed the exam, without obtaining the score that would allow him to access a prestigious university. He then joined Hangzhou Normal University, where he met Cathy Zhang – Zhang Ying whose real name was.

West Lake, Hangzhou
Credits: Pixabay

« [Jack Ma] is not a handsome man, but I fell in love with him because he can do a lot of things that handsome men can’t do », entrusts the latter. ” Firstly, [leur] relationship remained secret », Specifies Duncan Clark. The young people got married after graduating in 1988, and they both became teachers. Together, they will have two children, a boy and a girl. And will found Alibaba at the expense of the elder, they say. By the age of ten, he was already addicted to online games and spent his time in internet cafes, fleeing a home deserted by his overwhelmed parents. Cathy Zhang then quit her job at Alibaba. Jack Ma nevertheless knows how to owe him part of his professional success: “ She helps me a lot in my career and in my family life. But before they achieved this success and raised billions of dollars, the couple had a hard time.

Jack Ma has indeed quit his teaching post to found a translation agency that was sorely lacking in commissions. However, it was this translation agency that introduced him to the Internet, sending it to the United States in 1995, to try to settle a dispute between the municipality of Tonglu, a city neighboring Hangzhou, and an American company. A revelation.


Jack Ma was immediately fascinated by the Internet. But disconcerted to find nothing about his country. Duncan Clark quotes him: ” So I said to my friend, why not do something about China? We have created a very ugly page for my translation agency. The next morning my friend said to me: “You have five emails” from the United States, Japan and Germany. Excitedly, Jack Ma launches a Chinese business directory, China Yellow Pages, shortly after. It will nevertheless have to wait a few more years before experiencing its famous success.

Jack Ma introduced Alibaba in 1999

It was in February 1999 that he brought together about fifteen people in his Hangzhou apartment to found Alibaba. ” The fact that this name is known to everyone has saved Jack a lot of marketing investment at the same time that Alibaba provides him with imaginary material (the Forty Thieves, Sesame, the 1001 Nights) that he constantly recycles. », Emphasizes his biographer.

To his collaborators, he strikes: “ Our competitors are not in China but in Silicon Valley. We need to position Alibaba as an international site. And this strategy has paid off. As evidenced by the stock market results of the second quarter of 2017 of Alibaba, which passed the milestone of 400 billion dollars of valuation, thus entering the very closed club, and previously reserved for the Americans, of Internet giants: Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. Jack Ma also founded the Taobao online auction site, the Tmall online shopping center, and the Alipay online payment system, which has 400 million users in China.

In total, online payment represents more than $ 5.5 trillion in the country. ” Jack Ma’s business completely shaped how Chinese people consume ”, Estimates the specialist of the Chinese economy Mary-Françoise Renard. ” Now, you pay for everything with your phone, even at a restaurant, and this habit facilitates the emergence of new services, such as shared bicycles. This is explained by the fact that the blue card is not used much in China, due to a failing banking system. But it’s a little sad, everyone is constantly leaning on their phone, more than in France. What is far from sad, however, is the character that Jack Ma built for himself once he became a billionaire. In addition to his stage performances on the occasion of Alibaba’s birthdays and his disguises, he adores giving long speeches and telling his story to whoever wants to hear it, sharing his taste for martial arts and mythology. But above all, he remains a businessman.

In France also. In 2016, he offered himself three wine estates in Bordeaux – Château Pérenne, which covers 64 hectares and produces 500,000 bottles per year, Château Guerry, which extends over 20 hectares and produces 84,000 bottles per year, and the Château de Sours, which covers 80 hectares and includes a superb 18th century buildinge century.

The communist capitalist

Today the richest man in China, Jack Ma is arguably also the most powerful man in the country apart from its rulers. He was interviewed by Barack Obama in November 2015, during an Asia-Pacific summit in Manila. The 44e President of the United States had asked the Chinese billionaire in particular how governments and companies could, according to him, help young entrepreneurs. ” For governments, it’s simple – just cut taxes, or take them away, for these guys Jack Ma replied, eliciting a wave of laughter and applause from the audience. ” Your CEO colleagues like you a lot », Barack Obama replied.

Les Morleys and Jack Ma, in China

More recently, last January, Jack Ma spent 40 minutes with Donald Trump in his Trump Tower in Manhattan. The 45e President of the United States, who had nevertheless made a scarecrow of China during his campaign, was full of praise for his billionaire at the end of this meeting. ” He’s a great entrepreneur “, he said. ” He loves the United States and he loves China. Jack and I are going to do some great things for small businesses “, he added. And for good reason: Jack Ma has promised to create a million jobs on American soil over the next five years, by ” helping small businesses sell their products in China and other Asian markets “. A figurehead of capitalism, he is no less loyal to the Chinese Communist regime. When Yahoo, a minority shareholder of Alibaba, lent its support to Google against cyberattacks from China and censorship in Beijing in 2010, group spokesman John Spelich said he did not share his views. “ Alibaba Group told Yahoo its alignment with Google’s stance last week was irresponsible given lack of evidence », He hammered.

And five years later, Jack Ma bought the South China Morning Post, an English-language Hong Kong daily, to give a better image of its country to the rest of the world and counterbalance Western media accused of bias. ” Many journalists working for Western media oppose the system of governance in China and it distorts their coverage “, Declared the executive vice president of Alibaba, Joseph Tsai. ” We see things differently, we think things should be presented as they are. »

However, sometimes Jack Ma uses his power to put pressure on the authorities, especially over the infamous pollution of Chinese cities, and it is not impossible that this power will end up annoying the government. Duncan Clark asks himself the question in these terms: While Alibaba gathers more power than any other private company, can Jack Ma maintain the support of the government?

Cover: The Enigmatic Jack Ma. (Ulyces.co)