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Giorgia Scaturro journalist


In the waning years of the 20th century, as the millennium approached with promises of a new frontier (and lure of wealth), a former English teacher and university lecturer in the ancient city of Hangzhou, south-west of Shanghai, in China, was spending his spare time developing an interest in the newborn internet industry. Mister Ma Yun was not a tech geek: born in 1964, he was already in his mid-30’s when he discovered the world wide web. His name would soon become synonymous with entrepreneurial audacity and digital revolution.


Hangzhou, known for its historic landscapes, provided a picturesque backdrop to Ma's early life. The city is steeped in traditional Chinese heritage: it’s the end of the ancient Grand Canal Waterway, which originates in Beijing. Its West Lake has long been celebrated by poets and artists since as early as the 9th century; the picturesque lake is rich in various natural and artificial islands (reachable by boat), temples, pavilions, gardens and arched bridges. On its south bank, on Sunset Hill, lays the 5-storey Leifeng Pagoda, a reconstruction of a structure built in 975 AD, rebuilt in 2002 following its collapse in 1924. Yet it was the tales of Western capitalism and free enterprise that enchanted the young Ma. As a young boy, Ma became intrigued with learning the English language. As well as buying a pocket radio to listen to English radio regularly, he took the courage to interact with English-speakers who frequented the Hangzhou International Hotel. His dedication to learning the language pushed him to ride 27km every day to work for nine years as a tour guide of Hangzhou International Hotel. An interesting fact about Jack Ma is the source of his famous nickname, “Jack”, which originated from a past foreign pen pal who, due to difficulty in pronouncing his Chinese name, would call him ‘Jack’; for the rest of his life, he would be known as Jack Ma. His early life was marked by adversity: At the age of 13, Ma was transferred to Hangzhou No. 8 Middle School after he kept getting into fights. During his primary school years, he faced academic challenges, and it took him two years to secure admission to an ordinary Chinese high school after scoring a poor 31 points in mathematics on the Chinese high school entrance exam.

In 1980, while cycling to practice English with tourists, he met Ken Morley, a member of the Australia-China Friendship Society who was traveling with his family. Ken’s son David became Ma’s pen pal, and they remained in contact after David left China. Years later, the Morley’s welcomed Ma in Australia, altering the trajectory of his life entirely. Ma later reflected:

Those 29 days in Newcastle were crucial in my life. Without those 29 days, I would never have been able to think the way I do today.


He failed his college entrance exam twice and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including a notable rejection from KFC, the American fast-food chain, when it was first introduced to China in the early 1990s: it’s usually an idiot-proof job. Despite these setbacks, Ma's persistence paid off on his third attempt at college, leading him to attend Hangzhou Teacher's Institute from where he graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English. Ma had excelled academically, consistently ranking among the top five students in the foreign language department at Hangzhou Normal University, thanks to his previously perfected English-language skills. He was elected chairman of the student union, later also becoming chairman of the Hangzhou Federation of Students. After graduating, he went on to become a lecturer in English and international trade at Hangzhou Dianzi University. Interestingly, Ma also claims to have applied to Harvard Business School ten times in a row, only to be rejected each time, despite his unwavering persistence.


The dawning of the internet era in the 1990s coincided with Ma's growing fascination with this new technology. His first encounter with the internet during a trip to the United States in 1995 revealed a glaring omission: there was hardly any information available online about China. Together with a friend, Ma created a website about Chinese beer. Launched at 09:40am, by 12:30 pm, prospective Chinese investors were already reaching out via email, keen to know more about him and his website. This pivotal moment marked Ma's realization that he had found something big. In April 1995, together with his business partner, He Yibing, a computer instructor, Ma opened the first office for China Pages. Within a month, they registered the domain in the United States. Within three years, China Pages had generated approximately 5 million Renminbi (c. $1.18 million USD today). This revelation sparkled in Ma an idea that would eventually grow into Alibaba: the Chinese version of Amazon was born.


In 1999, Ma quit his job and returned to Hangzhou. The founding of Alibaba, a business-to-business marketplace website, took place in his apartment with the help of his 18 friends and an investment of 500,000 Yuan (c. $70,000) which they successfully raised. A few months later, Alibaba secured a substantial foreign venture seed capital totaling $25 million from Goldman Sachs, the American investment bank, and Japanese investment management conglomerate SoftBank. Three years later, the American e-commerce giant eBay offered to buy the company. Ma, however, declined their offer, instead garnering support from Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang, who provided a $1 billion upfront investment for the potential expansion of Alibaba's corporate operations.

Alibaba's rise was meteoric and its timing impeccable. As China's economy opened, Ma's platform connected Chinese manufacturers with overseas buyers, profoundly changing global trade dynamics. In the spirit of its namesake from the Arabian Nights, Alibaba's treasure was not gold, but access – access to a thriving, yet previously inaccessible Chinese market.


In September 2014, Alibaba's IPO on the New York Stock Exchange shattered records, raising 25 billion Dollars; the largest initial public offering in financial history at the time. This event did not just signify the arrival of Alibaba on the global stage; it also marked the definitive arrival of Chinese entrepreneurial might in the world of Big Tech.


Notwithstanding Alibaba’s remarkable success in China’s high-tech sector, Jack Ma was never a technical expert on computer technology, nor did he possess extensive technical know-how, managerial skills or background experience. Instead, he applied his educational background in a dynamic entrepreneurial setting, positioning himself as a promoter, businessman, manager, administrator, and organizer. Ma's core strengths lay in soft skills, emotional intelligence and capacity, and a seemingly effortless talent in leading and sourcing expert specialists across all the necessary technical domains. Ma’s lack of technical expertise is no secret, as he also revealed during a 2010 press conference how he had never written a single line of computer code, nor had he ever closed a sale with a customer, and that it was only at the age of 33 that he bought his first computer for business use.


Beyond the bustling marketplaces of Alibaba and its financial arm, Ant Financial, which controls AliPay, the “PayPal” of China, Jack Ma has cultivated a persona that blends Confucian philosophy with bold, progressive business practices. His speeches often draw from historical wisdom while advocating for an open and collaborative business environment.

Ma's educational initiatives and philanthropic efforts have aimed at nurturing a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs. In rural education and environmental projects, his “Jack Ma Foundation” mirrors the philanthropic efforts of Western counterparts like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, yet with a distinctly Chinese approach to social change. His personal wealth has been a subject of public fascination: According to Bloomberg rankings, in February 2024 Ma’s net worth stood at $30 billion, making him the 6th wealthiest person in China and 50th wealthiest person in the world. He was even wealthier three years ago, when Forbes listed his net worth at approximately 48 billion Dollars, making him one of the richest people in Asia and the wealthiest in China.

Spending money is much more difficult than making money” (J. Ma)


Jack Ma lost a big chunk of his wealth due to politics. Specifically, the Chinese Communist Party seemingly started an undeclared war on him. His outspoken nature and bold predictions have sometimes put him at odds with the Chinese government and the global business community. In 2020, Ma criticized China’s regulatory system, which he likened to an "old people's club." This comment, perceived as a challenge to the regulatory authorities, led to a series of governmental actions against Alibaba and Ant Financial (today Ant Group), including halting Ant's mega IPO just days before its launch. In fact, the future of the lending and payments business was made uncertain when China’s regulators torpedoed the 37 billion Dollar listing to rein in the billionaire entrepreneur's financial empire.

Four years later, Ma renounced control of Ant after Beijing ordered a painful restructuring of Alibaba's fintech affiliate, slapping it with a fine of 984 million Dollars. Ant's value, based on the price offered last year in a share buyback, has since fallen about 40 per cent below its proposed listing price.

In the meantime, Jack Ma's public appearances, as noted by the media, became scarce between October 2020 and January 2021, around the time of the regulatory clampdown on his businesses. He reemerged in January 2021, virtually addressing rural teachers at a charitable event, the annual Rural Teacher Initiative. One month later, reports surfaced of him enjoying a round of golf at the Sun Valley Golf Resort on the Chinese Island of Hainan. The following year, he reportedly maintained a low-profile in Tokyo, only occasionally travelling overseas, effectively living in a form of exile.

Last year, Ma was spotted for the first time at the Yungu school in his hometown of Hangzhou; as evidenced through social media, with a number of photos and videos of Ma’s visit confirming the public appearance of the billionaire.



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AQA Capital

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