Jack Ma: the 'grandfather' of China's internet

Profile of Jack Ma, the Chinese technopreneur who took on Ebay and is now gunning for Google.

Everything you hear about Jack Ma has a whiff of improbability about it. He is only 41, useless at technology, yet routinely hailed as the "grandfather of the internet in China". The implied sobriety of the title is misleading since the most striking thing about Ma apart from his fantastic ambition is his cheeky chappie routine. It's not enough for him to claim that China will be number one in the internet game within five years, he has to do it with a wink and a metaphorical pinch on the bottom. In another life, he might have walked the boards at the Hackney Empire.

Ma vs. Ebay and Google

The technopreneur's favourite target of late has been Ebay's crisp-shirted chief, Meg Whitman, who cannot step foot in China without the prospect of Ma's elfin features popping up in front of a thousand microphones proclaiming her arrival "an admission of defeat", notes Fortune. Whitman and her colleagues are "sharks in the ocean", he likes to say. "We, by contrast, are crocodiles in the Yangtze River" [cue resounding applause]. The infuriating thing for Whitman is that, so far at least, Ma has been right. His firm, Alibaba or more precisely its online auction arm, Taobao has seen off Ebay in China.

And now it's gunning for Google. Not content with holding the number-one spot in Chinese online auction activity, it wants to dominate searches as well. Ma's boasts used to be written off as hollow. But last year, he conjured up a deal that gave him control of Yahoo's China operation and paid him $1bn. The normally cool Ebay was stunned into issuing embarrassing retorts. "Jack Ma's strategy is to drive his competitors crazy. Now he's likely to drive Yahoo crazy as well."

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An internet entrepeneur

The really winning thing about Ma is that there's no trace of anti-Western malice in his taunts, observes The Economist. On the contrary, he's "a fanatic xenophile". Like most of his generation, he started out as a "Mao-loving" conformist, convinced "the outside world was a terrible place". But in 1985, a trip to Australia "turned his world view inside out". Back in China, where he began training as an English teacher, Ma listened to Tom Sawyer on The Voice of America and would cycle for hours to chat up foreigners in the nearest smart hotel. In 1992, he founded the first English-language translation agency in his town. It was called Hope, and its slogan was "Shake Hands Across The Ocean".

At this point, his story takes a surreal turn, says The Singapore Straits Times. Ma's cross-cultural links made him useful to the Chinese government and in 1995 he was sent to America to mediate in a dispute over unpaid debts between an American firm and its Chinese partner. In the resulting fracas, Ma claims to have been held at gun-point in a Malibu beach house for two days, before escaping to Seattle, where he had his first encounter with the internet.

Inspired, he headed back to China, borrowing $2,000 to set up China Pages, a company specialising in home pages for Chinese companies, from his flat. It was the country's first internet-based firm. Ma retained his links with America and, in 1998, forged an important connection when he gave Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang a tour of the Great Wall. The two became friends with the upshot that, when Ma came to form his next venture, Alibaba, in 1999, he was able to secure millions in backing from international investors such as Goldman Sachs and SoftBank. "The rest, as they say, is history."

Jack Ma gains rock star status as the internet booms again

To see Jack Ma at the top of his game, visit his hometown of Hangzhou next time he hosts AliFest, China's annual "internet summit", says The Guardian's Jonathan Watts. This year did not disappoint. Hailed as "the biggest gathering of entrepreneurs China has ever witnessed", thousands of fans attended, keen to gain inspiration from Ma and other internet superstars. And that's not hyperbole: for millions of young Chinese, "Ma is as much of a hero as kung fu stars, rock singers or actors". One of the top TV hits of the past year was Win in China, a similar format to

The Apprentice. "Ma, of course, was a star of the show."

Ma has momentum on his side and the largest online audience in the world barring the US, but there's no guarantee that he will be able to secure Alibaba's position as the dominant Chinese player, says the FT. He is being given more than a run for his money by Baidu.com, the market leader in online search.

And "for all the brilliance" of Ma and his peers, "it is not obvious that Chinese companies will emerge as winners in China", where success demands strong local management, rather than local ownership. "If the bet turns good, it is hard to see a Yahoo remaining satisfied with a minority position". Meanwhile, both Google and Ebay are planning new assaults. "It is difficult to imagine a more exciting new frontier for business than the internet in China A latterday Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in March 2000 might conclude the internet bubble had never burst." This new boom is based on sounder foundations, "but it still looks detached from hard business reality". At current prices, "it is a better opportunity for entrepreneurs than for investors".