Can Alibaba and Jack Ma’s soft power win in Hong Kong?

I haven’t been to Hong Kong for two years. This week I came to attend JUMPSTARTER 2017, a startup competition co-founded by the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund and its partners.

The world has witnessed Alibaba’s rapid global expansion and emergence as one of China’s foremost titans of tech. Crowned the ‘Amazon of the East’, Alibaba’s e-commerce empire has conquered China’s consumer base, the world’s largest. But it didn’t stop there. Alibaba has continued to make inroads into more foreign markets through aggressive investment, acquisitions, with rapid-fire actions disrupting a multitude of industries and sectors including fintech, big data, cloud computing, IoT, and AI.

I’d like to think of it as more than just business, but more of a ‘soft power expansion’ for Alibaba. Founder Jack Ma, as the face and soul of the tech behemoth, has charmed the world with his success stories and inspirational speeches. Indeed, he’s a role model for young entrepreneurs to look up to. In practice, Ma has gone above and beyond the role of a business leader, to that of a citizen diplomat.

He has actively involved himself in many current affairs by sharing stages with world leaders on many global issues. His intelligence and outspokenness, exceedingly unusual for any Chinese business leader, have certainly made impressions on a growing list of influential politicians, such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Watching him in a dialogue with Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was interesting. On television, when Ma speaks to Western politicians, he is often addressed as Jack. Presidents Obama and Trump, for instance, both refers to him by first name. Trump even called Ma “one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the world”, happily accepting Ma’s proposal to create one million jobs in the USA.

On Tuesday in Hong Kong when Ms. Lam addressed Ma in public by his full name, “Jack Ma”, as if shielding herself with an invisible wall of formality. Her message seemed to be, I know who you are, but it does not mean you are my friend. In comparison, Ma appeared more natural as himself, as his witty comments attracted more frequent and warmer applause from the audience.

Carrie Lam and Jack Ma (right) at JUMPSTARTER 2017

Ma has expressed an interest in helping Hong Kong. Alibaba set up the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund two years ago in an effort to accelerate local startup scenes in Hong Kong with a HKD 1 billion fund. Beijing has revealed its ambition to shape itself as a new tech hub in the East to take on Silicon Valley – and there’s certainly enough fuzz in the capital. There’s the “Internet Plus” policy with a USD 14.5 billion state fund to boost technology development. In comparison, Hong Kong has stayed relatively quiet on the tech scene. Ms. Lam said that she will make moves towards technology and innovation, yet there’s no concrete plans regarding the exact budget and how to allocate money. In the past three years, Hong Kong’s local tech conference Rise has tried to shape itself into one of top global gatherings for startups and investors, but never quite got there; Asian startups continue make their most important pilgrimages to the better known tech events of CES in Las Vegas and MWC in Spain.

The presentation of JUMPSTARTER 2017 was diverse and interesting. I listened to the most of them all the way through. Solar energy IoT solution provider, EN-TRAK and surgical robotics startup Cuttingedge Medtech caught my eyes and indeed turned out to win a one-million-dollar reward each. Their presentations were logical, their messages were clear, with disruptive marketing plans to solve world’s common problems. And the two founders spoke English to the audience, rather than many other presenters who used Cantonese.

If JUMPSTARTER were to present for an international audience, and its speakers had the ability to speak in English, the choice would be clear. The Cantonese presentations call for a direct response from the regional audience. Using translation devices are a gesture to ask other audiences to make an effort to communicate with them. They’ve made their point. When a person really wants something, he or she won’t let anything get in the way. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, with the hope of paving the way into the Chinese market, learned Chinese himself to be able to make public speeches and met with the Chinese president and other officials whenever he could. Jack Ma has learned the Western narratives, smoothing his journey out into the world beyond China.

The relations between Mainland China and Hong Kong have always been a touchy subject. No one talked about it at the event, but it was felt everywhere. A startup presenter mentioned Hong Kong as part of China in his speech. “I’m sorry…” he finished his sentence with a lowered voice. When Connie Chan, Partner of Andreessen Horowitz, spoke on the subject of China vs. Silicon Valley, she asked whether they ought to be considered partners or competitors. Despite how much of her data and depth touched on the globalization of Chinese tech companies, her conclusion that China can offer superpowers to Hong Kong to promote its tech scenes failed to win much warm response from the audience.

The debate of China vs. the Valley also caused certain disagreement from Ms. Lam who contended that it not be talked about given that Hong Kong was not part of the picture. “Let’s talk about the Greater Bay Area,” she suggested, referring to the region that includes Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau. Ms. Lam has pledged to promote tech innovation, but the name of the Greater Bay Area might be considered a copycat of that of northern California. To be honest, I personally don’t have much confidence in her proposal. It will take years for Hong Kong to develop its advantages in technology if it does. This is due to the simple fact that Hong Kong has already gotten too comfortable with what it’s good at — international financial services. And frankly, Hong Kong is a much too small market to test a new business model to be scalable.

Still, Jack Ma has praised the efficiency of the government of Hong Kong in so many ways, and he was bold to suggest Ms. Lam cut taxes on IT industry, a suggestion the audience loved. Then he talked about not giving up your dreams as an entrepreneur, speaking from his own true experiences.

That moment was uplifting even though the story was not new. Because his talk gave young entrepreneurs hope. That’s what entrepreneurship is about — creating opportunities and new ideas.

After all, can we just talk about business and leave politics out of it? It will surely be an easier and fairer game.

Good luck, Jack!

(All photos from Alibaba)

Wu Nan
Wu Nan

Nan is the Founder and Editor in Chief of AllTechAsia. She is an award-winning journalist with honors from Foreign Press Association in New York and Hong Kong Journalists Association. For years she worked for top-notch media outlets including South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. She co-founded the NetEase Annual Economist Conference (NAEC), a leading economic forum in China. She holds a master's degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and is a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Write to her: nan[at]alltechasia.com

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