Alibaba's Coming of Age

M.E. Strickland

Alibaba is all grown up. And with that, it seems, comes a clearer sense of what it is, and what it means to do in the world.

This weekend, Alibaba marked its 18th birthday in suitably extravagant style, with nearly 40,000 employees invited to descend on the corporate headquarters in Hangzhou, filling an arena where speeches by executives were mixed with music and dance spectacles. Jack Ma himself even showed up on stage at one point wearing a version of Michael Jackson’s iconic black and gold costume.

But Alibaba also took care to note that among the tens of thousands of guests, some 68 countries were represented, a testament to the company’s already globe-spanning reach. And this year, that last figure perhaps has a little more significance to it than being just another incidental PR datum.

Here at the anniversary of its founding, Alibaba is reaching a turning point, if it hasn’t already. This year it became one of the top ten largest companies in the world by market value, and has made no secret of its plans for looping in two billion consumers and creating millions of new entrepreneurs. And to do that, it seems both obliged and eager to transform itself from a simply international company into a truly cosmopolitan one.

Alibaba, as Ma sees it, is no longer simply a platform. “Alibaba today is no longer an ordinary company, it’s an economy,” he said, noting figures he has raised before that would rank Alibaba as the 21st largest economy in the world. In another two decades, he intends for the company to rise in those ranks to number five. But that goal was set “not for the sake of scale, but for responsibility,” namely the responsibility of creating job opportunities and consumer service worldwide.

Of course, many companies pay lipservice to notions of “corporate responsibility,” and plenty of large Chinese tech companies have charitable and social activities they can point to for their PR purposes. Alibaba, for its part, touted the fact that in the last fiscal year Alibaba users had made some 4.7 billion charitable contributions via one of the giving programs it promotes, accounting for over a quarter of China’s charitable giving.

Yet even with that taken into account, it would be hard for even the worst cynic to argue that what was on display at last week’s event was just the usual, nebulous rhetoric about doing good.

Ma and Zhang Yong (CEO of Alibaba, whereas Ma is executive chairman) both spoke earnestly to their assembled colleagues about the company’s future, crystallizing a vision that has been emerging over the past year and more in which Alibaba is to take its place on the world stage and usher in a new economy. The most daring thing about that vision, though, isn’t the ambition of it, although there is plenty of that. It’s that Alibaba seems to have fully and unabashedly embraced the very things that Chinese companies, in contrast to their Silicon Valley peers, have so often been seen to lack: a sense of values, of idealism, even of a responsibility to the world.

Said Ma: “I believe that Alibaba shouldn’t be proud of our profits, our revenues, or our scale, but of the responsibility and great returns that we bear.”

That is, on the face of it, a fairly radical statement coming from the head of a world leading business, but it is no longer even surprising coming from Ma. Of late he has taken more and more to talking about values, not merely as supplementary to business, but as fundamental to it. Alibaba, it appears, does not merely have a business anymore, but a mission.

“What I worry about most is that our employees, when they see they have everything, will forget about idealism. … If a company loses its ideals, then it’s just a money making machine,” he said, adding, “Alibaba can lose everything, but it cannot lose its idealism.”

That idealism has a stunningly wide scope. On this occasion, as he has done previously, Ma cited environmental problems and global inequality as among his concerns. And to care about the future, he said, is to “care about small businesses, about young people, about women[’s opportunities].”

Ma and Alibaba may have always harbored more than a little idealism. But it seems that with its success and maturity, the company now has the confidence to speak openly of ideals, even if they should run counter to hard-headed business convention. Zhang said that from now on, the company will no longer be emphasizing sales numbers. Instead, it will intensify its focus on helping lead the “three trillion” yuan retail economy to complete its transition into the smart digital era. That would make Alibaba much more than an ecommerce platform, but an actual part of the basic infrastructure of a new wholesale and retail economy.

The strategy, apparently, has three pillars: “globalization, rural strategy, and big data and cloud computing.”

Big data and cloud computing is perhaps self-explanatory, but the other two pillars, globalization and a strategy for expanding China’s rural areas, are really two sides of the same coin.

To understand what these really mean, and how they are a function of Alibaba’s stated idealism, it’s important to remember just what a peculiar creature Alibaba is as a business. Alibaba Group in its main guises of, Taobao, and Tmall, is, in the plainest terms, a set of platforms to connect buyers and sellers with one another. That means that, unlike ecommerce rival, it does not own the merchandise it handles, it is just the medium for it, making it possible for a smalltime vendor of anything from hardware fixtures to baby toys to sell to someone thousands of miles away. Ma noted the company now employees some 25,000 engineers to support the technical side of its operations, or almost half its workforce.

But Alibaba’s self-chosen role of middleman has also allowed (or even encouraged) it to become a champion of entrepreneurship. Independent vendors, large and small, are not its competitors, but its natural partners. Thus the goal that Ma has reiterated several times this year that, via its platforms, Alibaba should help to create opportunities for some 10 million would-be entrepreneurs, and not just limited to China.

At home, Alibaba has been promoting business programs for those who live in China’s still less developed countryside. At the same time, it has made a point of pursuing partnerships with existing ecommerce firms in other countries, rather than simply trying to muscle them aside. This year it has doubled down on investments in two leading ecommerce firms in Southeast Asia, Lazada and Tokopedia, which in theory will extend its reach to hundreds of millions more people.

That will certainly be good for business. But in Alibaba’s vision it also means—hopefully, ideally—economically uplifting millions of people, both in China and abroad.

Ma minced no words. “In the future Alibaba will go all in on actively promoting globalization. … Globalization is unstoppable, and we shouldn’t get in the way of it. Alibaba has a responsibility to carry globalization through.”

Of course, as ever, words have to be checked against action, and it is fair to reserve some doubt about Alibaba’s ability to measure up to its own ideals, lofty as they are, or to question the cost of attaining them.

But the very fact that Alibaba is comfortable speaking in a language of “values” and “responsibility” and “global problems,” and even goes so far as to say they matter more than the bottom line (and nevermind shareholder reactions), deserves to be considered carefully. Given its current and very secure position at the top of the industry ladder, and the standard set by its more cautious peers, Alibaba has been under no pressure to make such a bold declaration of values, or to commit itself to some notion of cosmopolitan responsibility. And yet here at 18 years of age it has done so, and with fervor.

(Wang Jianfei contributed reporting.)