Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Meet the Man Poised to Take Over the World Economy

| Jan. 29, 2018

The most interesting man at Davos was not He Who Must Not Be Named. (In the style of the Harry Potter books, I’m going to omit the name of the Dark Lord, otherwise known as the president of the United States. To be frank, I’m bored of him.) No, the most interesting man at this year’s World Economic Forum was a rather scrawny 53-year-old former English teacher from Hangzhou in eastern China whose business is poised to take over the world economy: Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of Alibaba.

As a boy growing up in the impoverished, chaotic China of the Cultural Revolution, Ma Yun (to give him his Chinese name) studied English, cycling miles from his home to meet the few English-speakers at the international hotel in Hangzhou, offering them free guided tours to build up his language skills.

In early 1995, Ma took a trip to the United States and had his first encounter with the Internet. Unlike Jeff Bezos, who started Amazon to sell books online, Ma from the outset envisioned an online marketplace for everything. He ran the name Alibaba past a San Francisco waitress. “What do you know about Alibaba?” he asked her, to which she replied: “Open sesame.” (Presumably if she’d said “Forty thieves” it would have been back to the drawing board.)

So what else makes Alibaba different from Amazon? Two things. First, Ma moved faster than Bezos to diversify his business. In particular, Alibaba pioneered electronic payments, establishing Alipay to allow online purchases with no transaction fees.

Today few things impress the Western visitor to China more than the ubiquity of electronic payments. Everyone pays for everything with their smartphones. Although Tencent’s WeChat messaging app now offers a rival service, it was Alipay that blazed the trail, not only with online payments but also with online money-market funds (Yu’e Bao) and an ever-growing range of online financial services, now spun off as Ant Financial.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ferguson, Niall.“Meet the Man Poised to Take Over the World Economy.” The Boston Globe, January 29, 2018.

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