The founder and executive chairman of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba Group talks to The Nation co-founder Suthichai Yoon about Thailand’s main strength and weakness when it comes to e-trade, and the anti-globalisation trend, China’s “negative” image as well as his retirement plan.
Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview conducted at Alibaba’s hQ in Hangzhou.
Suthichai: The pace with which you are working is amazing. Over the past few days you have launched a cash-less coffee shop and talked about five big new trends and about launching a bank for the poor to borrow without having to go through all the normal banking processes. All these things happened in the past week alone. The pace is amazing. Don’t you ever stop, Jack?
Jack Ma: We have resources of great young people. We have all the technology and all the money. With all the resources and money you have, you think of how to enable society, how to spend the resources in the most efficient way so people can benefit.
We are one of the biggest Internet companies in the world. It is not about thinking of making money. It’s about how to use technology and young talents you have in enabling others. For example, [regarding] the cash-less coffee shop, we are trying to make China a cash-less society in five years. If China can make it happen, why can’t other countries? We are moving so aggressively. We hope that one day when millions of Chinese people go to Thailand, they can just take their mobile phone and passport, without having to carry cash. They can go to any shops, bars and hotels and make payments through their mobile phones.
Do you plan to visit Thailand again soon? What are you going to do in Thailand?
Yes. I expect to visit Thailand again [later] this year. Actually my last trip to Thailand was very fruitful thanks to the prime minister and the Cabinet. I remember the wonderful time I spent in Thailand, talking to young people and businesspeople. Since I came back, the King passed away. I know that the whole country is sorrowing, so we said let’s wait for a while. We are making progress but not in a big way. I’m thinking about going [to Thailand] this time with our CEO and our team – taking e-commerce to Thailand. Based on the agreement we had last time, we are upgrading our partnership.
You already have Lazada [a major online shopping store]. Lazada is quite active in Thailand as well as in Southeast Asia. Has Alibaba already taken up 83 per cent of Lazada?
Yes, 80-something per cent of Lazada. Lazada is like an e-commerce company in Southeast Asia. We’re thinking about how to help Thailand become more connected to the Chinese market, to be more connected to the Southeast Asian market and to other countries through five global functions: global buy, global sale, global delivery, global financing and global travel. These are the five functions that we want to see enable Thailand’s small businesses and young people. So we will connect Thailand with other countries, especially China.
In Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) economic zone, I think Lazada or Alibaba is interested in setting up an e-commerce park there. Is that right?
Yes, I heard the team is working on that. CEO Daniel [Zhang] and I are thinking about how we can enable Thailand to be more globalised, to become more connected to the Chinese market and other parts of the world.
So, is the EEC part of the activities you are planning?
I think so. I have not talked with the Lazada team about that project yet because now the things that we are doing there, I think the more we do it, the more we understand Thailand. And we want Thai businesspeople to understand Alibaba so they can leverage e-commerce and leverage Alibaba facilities.
Thailand can also be a gateway to CLMV – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Thailand is always trying to position itself as the gateway to CLMV. Do you see Thailand as a possible gateway to the rest of the region?
Yes. Not every country has the five elements – buy, sell, financing, delivery and travel. Thailand is among very few countries that have these five functions. So we place very special attention on Thailand. Our strategic team is researching and trying to figure out how we can help Thailand function in a better way. Definitely, Thailand is such an important country in the region.
Apart from Thailand, what is the big picture about your strategy in Asean?
There are five countries we are paying special attention to. We visited Thailand first. Malaysia’s prime minister came. He made a quick move and is taking action to make sure Malaysia is the hub for the eWTP [Electronic World Trade Platform] of the area. They are building up the first example of an eWTP hub there. We are also paying special attention to Pakistan. We think that Vietnam is also important, so too the Philippines. These are the five countries. Of course, Cambodia is a country that our team of young people is very interested in visiting.
One thing’s for sure, this time when I go to Thailand, a big delegation of Alibaba Group will accompany me, with logistics, financing, e-commerce and cloud computing [teams]. All our key persons will go there together.
where thailand is concerned, What more do we need to do in order to make you confident that your investment, your expansion into this country will be worthwhile? What exactly do you think we still lack? You can be frank because I would like your message to reach the government, the private sector and the bureaucrats.
Thailand probably should have moved much faster. Honestly, we were shocked by Malaysia’s speed [of action]. The [Malaysian] prime minister said “in three months I will make this thing happen”. We thought, oh my god, three months is almost impossible. He made it happen. It’s a huge project [but] they made it in three months. They have built up a strong team to follow up on this. They have opened all the customs offices and inspection offices, doing all things that need to be done. I think Thailand should move faster. This is something we expect. But we understand and maybe because of the passing of the King, things have slowed down [in Thailand]. This time when we come there, we would love to see things proceeding at a faster speed. For businesses like ours, we need speed, execution and results. Malaysia’s speed surprised us. We were impressed. I believe Thailand can do that too because you have great talent and a very quick-moving government. So this time when we go there, everything we agreed on we will get done.
Some local and regional e-commerce companies, medium-sized and small, asked me to deliver their concerns to you – that When Alibaba comes, it will be a big sweep and you’re going to wipe them away. How can they survive alongside Alibaba? How can Alibaba help them? When you come in and take over most of their activities, they cannot survive. Do you think their concerns are valid?
No. I think the problem is people know very little about Alibaba’s business model.
Principle number one: we are not interested in the local market. We’re interested in bringing local products to the world, to China. This has always been our focus. Amazon and e-Bay [US-based online shopping giants] have been worried about us for a long time so we have not gone to America. We bring America’s small businesses to China. Even in India, which is a huge market, we just invest in local partners. We are not interested in building up a local e-commerce company in Thailand or wiping out all the others, unless they need us and say please come here. We are only interested in bringing Thailand to the world.
Principle number two: our model is always to enable local partners. We never do it ourselves, we find partners. Lazada is a company we have acquired; we didn’t build it up ourselves. It has great influence in Southeast Asia. We are also improving Lazada’s model and we want to make sure Lazada in the future will also enable local partners. For Thailand’s small and medium-sized e-commerce companies, don’t worry. If they want to compete with us in bringing Thai products to China and the world, maybe it’s tough. But if they do serve the customers locally, it would be great. And we will be happy to enable them using our technology and even our money if they need these things, as well as know-how to enable them to conduct better local services. Our model is different from that of the US. [American companies] want to control the local market themselves. Anywhere we go, the first thing we do is to look for a local partner.
There is concern that in the end you will help sell Chinese products to the world, rather than promote Asean products in China.
China has been selling products to the world in the past 30 years. They’re so good at it that they don’t need us. I don’t think they need e-commerce to do it. And China is transforming itself from mainly exporting to importing. I try to convince the government and the business community that China should learn to buy things. This land can never be the factory or kitchen of the world because it destroys the environment. This model is not sustainable.
China does not have large import facilities like developed countries. This is where e-commerce should fill the space. Alibaba is not good at selling things across the world. We are very good at conducting China’s domestic e-commerce. And we are trying to be the largest importer in China. Chinese companies are already in Southeast Asia, and they don’t need us. We don’t have any Web tools to help them go to Southeast Asia. But we can help bring Southeast Asia’s agricultural products, fruits and small innovations to China. This is something we are unique at. If we can build up better skills, then we’ll be a great company, otherwise we’re just a company selling things.
Some people said Jack Ma is like [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates, part [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos, part [Apple founder] Steve Jobs, part [Google co-founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg all rolled into one.
I’m learning from each person. I learned a lot from these guys. In the business world people love to have competitors. I don’t have competitors. When you see these people, you have to see what you can learn from these guys and businesses, about their visions and missions. When you see these great people, you may not like them at first. But you should ask what you can learn from them. And when you learn from them, you start to respect and appreciate, and then you start to like them. As a businessperson, you should not think too much about competition. You should think about learning from your competitors, learning from those great leaders. There must be something unique you can learn.
You said Alibaba will last 102 years. And your ultimate goal will be to serve two billion consumers around the world and help 10 million companies become profitable. You are now 52. Will you live to that day and see Alibaba accomplish its mission?
I wish I could. But it’s like a relay run. Everybody only runs for 100 metres. I will give my torch to the next person. This is how we have designed our model. I am the first CEO and first chairman of the company. We have a line of great CEOs and in the future we can have a good chairman. I will retire. It’s not because I want to have an easy life. I retire to leave this opportunity for young people. They can do a better job. When you [get old], you should leave the position, opportunity and challenge to your successor. I have been preparing for this for many years. I also want to set an example to many entrepreneurs about giving opportunities and challenges to young people.
When are you going to retire officially?
I stepped down from the CEO position in 2012. I have been the chairman for five years. Sooner or later I’m prepared [for retirement]. I cannot announce it now. But everything is on track. We have a superb team of successors ready. I will have a lot of things to do when I retire. I want to have a Jack Ma Foundation and a university for entrepreneurs. I will go back to teaching. I hope that the day when I die, people will say “he’s a great teacher”.
What do you want to be remembered for after you die?
[I want to be remembered] as a good teacher and a very unique person who happened to [found] a company called Alibaba. That’s it. Alibaba is used by millions of people, not just me. I happen to have an idea and great people in the team work together. It’s not my masterpiece; it’s our masterpiece, it’s the society’s masterpiece.
Deep down you must also be thinking about the next big threat that could destroy Alibaba. What would that be? Where would the threat come from?
If the threat is some great ideas and innovations, that’s great. This means society is moving fast. When society makes progress, more people can benefit. I’m happy about that. I’ll be excited if some small companies in a couple of years move ahead and do better than us so that they can replace us. That’s fine. Every company is like a human being. They are born, grow up, get old and die. This is natural. But we don’t like to be destroyed by some stupid action – by the government or some crazy guys who just don’t like you. We do not worry about fair competition or great innovations.
Do disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics affect or enable you?
Eight years ago, we started to transform our company from an e-commerce to a data firm. We pay very special attention to robots, artificial intelligence and machine intelligence. I don’t think artificial intelligence or machine learning or cloud computing will disrupt us. We are using these technologies to enable human beings and small businesses, and we’re learning that very quickly.
The trend in a part of the world now is anti-globalisation. What do you think about that?
It’s impossible. It’s a fever or flu. We will get over it. Nobody can stop globalisation. People are becoming more mobile. When people travel, you can never stop trade. When people travel, you can never stop business. In the future it’s not that we will say it’s not e-commerce or e-trade. It’s business. It’s not made in China or Thailand – it’s made on the Internet. Everything is connected. You may design it in America, manufacture it in Thailand and assemble it in China, then sell it all over the world. This will be the future of the world and nobody can stop it.
Globalisation has done a wonderful job in the past 30 years. But nothing is perfect. It’s only 30 years. Compared to human history, it’s like a baby. You should not kill the baby because he cries. Our job is to improve globalisation – from pure trade to business alliances and partnerships – [so as] to enable young people and small companies to conduct cross-border business.
One theory about this anti-globalisation trend is that the world is suffering from inequality – one per cent against 99 per cent. Of course, you belong to the 1 per cent. The 99 per cent don’t benefit from globalisation. Don’t you think that maybe the campaign against globalisation is because a lot of people do not benefit from it?
I don’t think I belong to the 1 per cent. I may have 1 per cent of resources but I belong to the 99 per cent. Without tech knowledge, without globalisation, there’s no Jack Ma and no Alibaba.
Inequality has always been a problem, in history and today. With the Internet, big data and the brains of people, we should be able to solve it. Today I don’t think it’s 99 per cent to one – maybe five per cent to 95. We can improve it and there’s a chance to improve it. There’s a way to improve it. Don’t give up. I think there are a lot of people like me and we want to do something [to help the poor]. We are not interested in only spending money on ourselves. We want to spend money on the world.
China is a big country now, very influential and the second biggest economy in the world. Is China a threat or a support to the world?
I think China will be a great support for the world. Every culture has its own religion. China’s religion originates from three branches – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucian-ism. The theme of Taoism is how to change yourself to be harmonious with the environment and nature. The theme of Buddhism is how to change your behaviour to be harmonious with society and community. The theme of Confucianism is how to change yourself to be
harmonious with society. The philosophy of Chinese culture is to be harmonious.
In the next 10 to 20 years, when China becomes much more developed, it can do more things for the world. I don’t think China would be a threat.