Breakingviews - Jack Ma and Xi Jinping: dubious comrades in arms

Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, speaks with students during an event at the Tel Aviv University, Israel May 3, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - The relationship between Jack Ma and Xi Jinping just got a little more complicated. State media outed the founder of $400 billion Alibaba as a Chinese Communist Party member. Implying that China’s most famous capitalist is on board with the president’s agenda of exerting influence over technology companies makes good propaganda, but it may not exactly be the case.

Ma was listed by the People’s Daily on Monday as one of 100 top contributors to China’s “Reform and Opening Movement,” noting he belongs to the CCP. He took advantage of Deng Xiaoping’s liberalisation push that began 40 years ago to build an e-commerce empire. Chinese youth revere Ma as a symbol of private sector-led transformation; some erect shrines to him. If Deng is the father of China’s economic reform, Ma is without doubt its eldest son.

However, his messianic image looks heretical to ideologists proselytizing the personality cult of Xi. Censors also have grown uncomfortable with the social influence companies like Alibaba, and peers including Tencent and Baidu, have accrued over their legions of users. Thus, the government has moved to increase the role of party groups inside private companies, and is mulling parachuting directors onto the boards of tech outfits. Alibaba and others may have been encouraged to invest last year into China Unicom, a lumbering state-owned enterprise, for political reasons.

Ma, who has announced intentions to step down as executive chairman next year, has frequently expressed support for the government. Recent comments seem more tempered. “I personally think that the government has to do what the government should do, and the companies do what companies should do,” he said at a September conference on artificial intelligence. Speaking at a trade fair in early November, Ma suggested bureaucratic worries about technology were impeding innovation. The moderator, chairman of state-owned Sinochem, interjected that “the government is not necessarily bad, OK.”

Many officials want to be associated with Ma and his glow. Knocking him down a peg or interfering with his online retail conglomerate risks sparking a schism, worrying investors and disillusioning a generation of young Chinese entrepreneurs. Suggesting that Ma is an unwavering comrade in arms with Xi also may be easier than making people believe it.


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