review: alibaba the house that jack ma built by duncan clark

Alibaba The House That Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark is a good case for why we should take a work on its merits and not push it too hastily into any particular genre or subgenre. This is indeed a story of the birth and growth of Alibaba. But it also shapes as a biography of Jack Ma. Plus it is a lucid account of the development of the internet and e-commerce in China in the nineties and noughties, with a good take on the largest local players, the big US tech companies and the often catch-up position of the Chinese government.

My present interest in Jack Ma is that I am seeking out examples of a variety of present day taiji enthusiasts to include in my upcoming taiji book: Taiji: Use Mind and not Force. I have two Jacks so far: Jack Thompson, Australian actor, and Jack Ma. And to see how influential the writings of Louis Cha have been on Jack Ma explains a lot about his unconventional corporate strategies and his very taiji pugilistic approach to the building of Alibaba. This is well summed up in the quote on the last page of the book: Most people think of Alibaba as a story. It’s not just a story, it’s a strategy. While Clark makes reference to Ma’s interest in taiji early in the book, he leaves it behind there as part of the early Jack the entrepreneur, but I know that he is still keen on the art and even offers taiji classes to like-minded entrepreneurs.

Duncan Clark has done a great job. The fact that he lives in China comes across in his breadth of understanding of the Chinese landscape. He is not an outsider peering into the China window as appear to be some of the US-based reviewers of this work. Clark is well qualified to write the book, having worked as an investment advisor in China since 1994 and having personally known Jack Ma for over 17 years during which time he has done some work for Ma as a consultant.

Clark covers a lot of ground. There is much history here. He has to sift and sort a lot of information. However, he is also able to delve in deep on some of the important and contentious issues, such as Ma’s sidelining of Alipay from Alibaba, an action Ma strongly defends but which some investors found a bit too tricky for their liking.

Parts of the book were reminiscent of many books written in the eighties and nineties of how so many foreign companies came to grief in China but were unwilling to talk about it. It’s like I’ve heard the tale of eBay in China before, the way they imposed their will on the local management and despite the long and loud warning signs they remained oblivious of the dangers until it was too late. But in eBay’s case it was both a case of lack of local knowledge and having to deal with a fierce competitor.

To work successfully between the Chinese and Western cultures requires some special skills. We often think of communication as getting messages across, but it also involves listening and observing and picking up patterns we may not be familiar with. Jack Ma is armed with these skills across the cultures and this explains his ability to deal with such a diverse range of people in the building of his empire. I am presently watching a China-based tech company on my local ASX. It is highly undervalued with local investors who are so suspicious of the China-based management. In many cases these managers are simply guilty of doing things differently. I hope one day to write a book on this very issue of cross-cultural misunderstanding in the investment community, but as in the case of Alibaba, I will wait until the company pulls through and actually rings the bells of success. Of course there are historical reasons to be suspicious of the other side, but there can also be a simple resistance to look at the facts as they stand and actually trust somebody who operates differently to ourselves.

I also enjoyed Clark’s take on Hangzhou. I first went there in 1991 and I read it as simply a university city. I have been there several times since, most recently early 2018, and the city has grown massively. It is looking like the new Shanghai. On that visit to China, I spent some time in several cities in Zhejiang Province and was impressed by the innovative approach to government and the youth and vigour of many of the political leaders. I’m now left wondering just how extensive the Jack Ma effect has been there.

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