Tech billionaire Jack Ma hogged the headlines on Monday when he unveiled a HK$1 billion fund for Hong Kong’s young entrepreneurs even as his company is embroiled in a public squabble with Chinese regulators who accused it of selling fake products.
The announcement was apparently intended to cast a positive light on his e-commerce empire, whose listed stock on the New York bourse plunged on the news about counterfeit goods being sold on his online shopping mall Taobao.
Sure, no one will argue that Ma’s desire to “let everyone start their own business” is noble and admirable. But does Hong Kong need his HK$1 billion?
The city is overflowing with funds to help startups. In fact, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has just announced a HK$5 billion Innovation and Technology Fund to support research and development. Several government-run funds are also helping local entrepreneurs to launch and expand their businesses.
So what’s the real deal?
Ma blew into town on Sunday to give a pep talk to local students, share his experiences in entrepreneurship, and encourage them to start their own businesses instead of working as employees of others.
The meeting was hosted by Tung Chee-hwa’s Our Hong Kong Foundation. Ma is one of the foundation’s consultants.
Given the context of Ma’s offer of financial assistance, one cannot help but suspect that it is part of the pro-establishment camp’s efforts to win over the disenchanted youngsters after the 79-day Occupy campaign.
It will be recalled that during the protests, young activists decried the lack of opportunities to advance their careers and improve their situation as housing prices soar and mainland talents compete for jobs in the city.
Ma dismissed speculation that there is a political motive behind his offer of help, noting that his Hong Kong Young Entrepreneurs Fund is being established and run without any links with the Hong Kong or central government.
He even stressed that all youngsters, including those who participated in the Occupy campaign, can apply for the fund.
But the suspicion that there is a political agenda behind the financial offer remains.
Ma established and nurtured his Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. as a private enterprise without any government support. In fact, his very public squabble with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) over the fake goods allegation indicates that he is not beholden to Communist Party cadres and government functionaries.
However, it cannot be denied that his e-commerce empire is now a pillar of China’s domestic consumption. Ma has become an important element in the central government’s effort to shore up the country’s flagging economic growth.
Ma himself has been invited more than once by Premier Li Keqiang to share his views on economic issues, and this indicates his close ties with the current government led by President Xi Jinping.
Some political commentators also speculate that Ma was endorsed by top mainland leaders to help in the campaign to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong youth in the post-Occupy era, particularly in helping them develop a positive attitude toward the mainland and the central government.
But what can Ma and his Alibaba offer to Hong Kong’s youth aside from his HK$1 billion fund?
True, his rise from a struggling English teacher into one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs can be a source of great inspiration. Ma is also known for his personal charisma, and people believe he is sincere in his desire to help the Chinese people.
Alibaba is a great company in terms of market capitalization, but its greatness is anchored on the vastness of the Chinese market. It has yet to attain the grandeur of vision and innovative power exemplified by great technology companies such as Apple, Google and eBay.
Meanwhile, Alibaba is reeling from allegations that its online shopping platforms TMall and Taobao have been selling fake and dodgy products for years. Despite the latest SAIC accusation, both the company and the authorities appear to be playing down such bad practices.
For it to be considered a truly great company, Alibaba should have poured its vast resources into developing and implementing a tight monitoring system that will eliminate once and for all the scourge of fake products from its e-commerce platforms.
But instead, Ma gives the usual excuse that his company is too big to check out all the products being sold in its online outlets and that it has to rely on customers’ complaints to detect counterfeit goods.
There are probably many things that Hong Kong youth can learn from a successful company like Alibaba. But there are also many other global firms that they can look up to for inspiration, companies with entrepreneurial experience and vision, and the ethical standards that define their true greatness.
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