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Duncan Clark talks about Jack Ma and his business empire

jack ma, alibaba

Duncan Clark is known in Beijing as a savvy commentator on China's rapidly morphing tech world. A British citizen who first came to China in 1994, he learned the language and stayed for two decades. His background as an investment banker specializing in telecommunications at Morgan Stanley in London and Hong Kong helped him understand in the mid-1990s that the China market was about to take off.

在北京,邓肯•克拉克(Duncan Clark)因为能对瞬息万变的中国科技界做出精辟的点评而闻名。这位英国公民于1994年首度踏足中国,学会了汉语又旅居了20多年。他曾在伦敦与香港的摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)任职投资银行部门,专攻电信通讯类业务。这样的背景让他在90年代中期便洞悉到中国市场即将起飞。

Mr. Clark opened a consultancy firm, BDA, which helped raise money for the major telecom operators China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. One of the most interesting characters he encountered, Mr. Clark said, was Jack Ma, in the early days of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant Mr. Ma founded. That insider view infuses Mr. Clark's book "Alibaba: The House Jack Ma Built,'' to be published in April. In an interview, Mr. Clark discussed Alibaba's phenomenal growth, Mr. Ma's emergence as a public figure and what sets Mr. Ma apart from the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

克拉克创立了自己的投资顾问企业博达克咨询有限公司(BDA)。该公司曾协助中国移动、中国联通、中国电信等大型电信运营商筹措资金。克拉克曾表示,要说他遇过的最有趣的人物,在电子商务巨头阿里巴巴草创时期的马云当属其一。克拉克在他即将于今年4月出版的新书《阿里巴巴:马云的商业帝国》(Alibaba: The House Jack Ma Built)里就融入了自己的幕后观点。在接受本报的访谈时,克拉克探讨了阿里巴巴的惊人成长、马云成为公众人物这一现象,以及马云和Facebook创办人马克•扎克伯格(Mark Zuckerberg)的差别何在。

Q. You once described Jack Ma as someone who likes to cultivate the persona of an outsize personality. Isn't there a risk in having too high a profile in China and being taken down?


A. Executives who say or do the wrong thing are always at risk. I titled the last chapter of my book ‘‘Icon or Icarus.''


Sure, he has an outsize personality and a large public following, but he has been careful not to fall foul of the authorities. If anything, he has positioned Alibaba as a useful ally as the government attempts to put Chinese consumers in the driving seat. Spend more, save less is the new mantra. 


Q. Alibaba has been working in recent years to reorganize and become more efficient. All tech start-ups go through growing pains. How severe are those pains at Alibaba right now?


A. Alibaba was founded 17 years ago, employs over 38,000 people, and is a listed company on the NYSE. It has experienced lots of ups and downs, both as a private and a public company, and gone through many reorganizations. Alibaba is more of a commerce company than a tech company, although its future is increasingly one in which technology plays a leading role.


After a few years of piecemeal international expansion — including a failed attempt to launch its own consumer-facing site in the U.S. — Jack last year brought in former Goldman Sachs banker Michael Evans to oversee its global footprint, with new offices on the East Coast of the U.S. and across Europe.

经过数年在国际间的逐步扩张——其中包括它曾试着在美国创立面向消费者的网购平台,但以失败告终——马云在去年延揽了曾供职高盛银行(Goldman Sachs)的迈克尔•埃文斯(Michael Evans)来为阿里巴巴的全球布局操盘,也在美国东海岸与欧洲各地建立了新据点。

Q. Ma started out as an outspoken, slightly goofy businessman. Now he is attending major political events like the China Development Forum — which is a major way for Beijing to promote China. Has he chosen to go into politics of his own free will, or has he allowed himself to be co-opted as a matter of survival?


A. Even before he founded Alibaba, Jack was a regular speaker at conferences at home and abroad. His public appearances have been critical for him to grow and maintain his profile. He is the ultimate performer, his folksy charm and seemingly impossible ambitions as effective in English as in Chinese.


Before he founded Alibaba, his third venture, Jack worked as a civil servant in Beijing, giving him valuable insights into the intersection of business and politics in China. This is crucial as he expands his empire beyond e-commerce into areas such as finance. The process isn't smooth however: Jack has already encountered powerful vested interests such as opposition from state-owned banks alarmed by the rapid growth of his money market fund or plans for an online bank.


Q. Is Alibaba, whose business depends heavily on private vendors using it to sell their wares, really committed to getting rid of counterfeit products as demanded by the Chinese State Administration for Industry and Commerce (S.A.I.C.)?


A. Fakes and unscrupulous traders are part and parcel of commerce. In China, as in the U.S., there are people who actively seek out fakes, people who are unwilling or unable to pay for the real thing.


Simply moving trading online doesn't eliminate the problem, but it has created tensions between S.A.I.C., the brand owners who suffer from piracy and operators of e-commerce platforms like Alibaba. The short-lived, but very public, spat with S.A.I.C. in January 2015 illustrated that Alibaba has no choice but to step up its efforts to root out fakes on its platforms: to help the government do its job.


Alibaba became famous for Taobao, the platform where small merchants or individuals sell a wide range of third-party products — including fake products, especially in the early days. Merchants who pass off fake products as real can expect to see their store ratings and business suffer. Alibaba can also shut down the Alipay accounts of repeat offenders, and use big data to analyze trading patterns.


But Alibaba's success hangs increasingly on another platform, Tmall, where brand owners sell their own — real — products, or via large retailers, directly to consumers. Taobao was vital to Alibaba's past success. Tmall is the key to its future, as Alibaba generates a commission on every sale. By contrast, on Taobao, Alibaba relies purely on advertising revenue.


Q. Alibaba seems to be buying into new areas that could be considered vanity projects, or projects that assist the Chinese government with soft power. Hollywood and The South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong English-language newspaper, are two examples. How much of Ma's desire for promoting China is involved in these projects?


A. The relatively small — $200 million — purchase of The South China Morning Post will do little to move the needle for Alibaba's business, raising the question of why the company felt inclined to buy it in the first place. In explaining the purchase, Alibaba vice chairman Joe Tsai vowed to protect the newspaper's editorial independence. Yet he also voiced frustration at how China is portrayed in Western media. While Alibaba is unlikely to use the paper as a vehicle for promoting itself, it faces an uphill struggle to convince skeptics that it made the purchase for reasons other than helping the Chinese government project its influence in the territory.

答:收购《南华早报》是一笔比较小的投资——2亿美元——不会对阿里巴巴的生意有什么影响,因而让人不明白公司买下它的动机。在解释进行这项收购的原因时,阿里巴巴董事局副主席蔡崇信(Joe Tsai)承诺,他们会保持该报的采编独立权。但他也透露出,他们对中国在西方媒体报道中的形象感到不满。尽管阿里巴巴不太可能会将这家报纸用作自我宣传的工具,但它的确面临着一个艰巨的任务,即让怀疑者相信,它收购的原因并非为了帮助中国政府在该领域施加影响。

Q. How would you describe the differences in entrepreneurial style between Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma? Do you think Facebook, which is now blocked, will enter the China market? 


A. Jack is an entrepreneur's entrepreneur: He's not a tech guy, he didn't go to Harvard, he even once supplemented his income as an English teacher by buying and selling plastic carpets on the streets. Mark Zuckerberg has a tech background, who leveraged that and good timing while at Harvard to build a massive and almost global social business.


But China will likely remain beyond Facebook's grasp. China has hardly stood still without Facebook: Tencent's WeChat is a dominant player in China already, superior in some important ways to Facebook especially in mobile. No doubt Jack and Zuckerberg have explored how they might work together, not least because Tencent is a formidable competitor to Alibaba in social and mobile.


But to enter China, Facebook would have to water down its local product, or de-link it from the rest of the world — which risks alienating customers and the U.S. government. It's hard to see how Facebook can square the circle. But that doesn't mean that Mark Zuckerberg won't keep on trying.



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