Newspaper article International New York Times

The Birth of Alibaba, the Huge Digital Marketplace

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Birth of Alibaba, the Huge Digital Marketplace

Article excerpt

An account of the growth of Alibaba, the huge digital marketplace.

Alibaba. The House That Jack Ma Built. By Duncan Clark. Illustrated. 287 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

The personal-computer and Internet revolution that began in the late 20th century eventually took over most of the world, but its most prominent players -- Amazon, Apple, eBay, Google, Microsoft -- were distinctly American. In the 21st century, it is not impossible to imagine an Internet revolution beginning in China.

That possibility is, as with so many aspects of China, a function of scale. Alibaba, the sprawling Chinese digital marketplace, is already by some measures larger than Amazon. Its payment tool Alipay alone accounts for one-third of the $2.5 trillion global online payments market. The dizzying rise of the company is a crucial part of China's ascension as a global economic power, and if you've never heard of the company, rest assured that you will. When the Alibaba founder Jack Ma appeared onstage last year at a conference in Manila with Barack Obama, Mr. Obama interviewed him.

We often think of successful tech C.E.O.s climbing from the nerdy ranks of tinkering programmers, like Bill Gates, but as "Alibaba," Duncan Clark's engaging biography explains, Mr. Ma's humble origins gave no clue to his future -- then again, in 1970s China, the very idea of a homegrown technology business executive was inconceivable. Born in 1964 to a photographer and a factory worker, Mr. Ma grew up a mediocre student in the city of Hangzhou. About the only thing that set him apart was learning English, which he would practice by speaking to tourists passing through his hometown. One of those tourists, a vacationing Australian Communist, became a generous benefactor who even helped buy a house for a young Mr. Ma and his wife.

After a stint teaching English, Mr. Ma began running a tiny translation business, focused on Chinese companies -- beginning to flourish under Deng Xiaoping -- seeking to do business with the West. During his first visit to the United States, in the mid-90s, a friend in Seattle logged Mr. …

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