By Peter Isackson
Capitalist or communist, in Jack Ma’s case he’s now officially both. Bloomberg informs us that “Jack Ma, co-founder of China’s most valuable company, was officially confirmed as a member of the Communist Party.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A word that confuses Americans, who define it alternatively as an illegitimate school of thought, a government that wants to destroy them and their way of life or a simple, but powerful bureaucracy that controls another nation — much in the same way that the military-industrial-financial complex controls the United States
When Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group went public on the New York Stock Exchange (not believed to be a communist front organization), he gave an idea of what it meant to be a capitalist in a communist country by maintaining “that investors would be the company’s third priority, after customers and employees.”
Despite his dire warnings, the Wall Street investors showed up. Which leads us to speculate that another definition of communist might be a person who fails to adhere to the philosophy and economic theory of Milton Friedman and the moral philosophy of Ayn Rand.
China is a communist nation only in the sense that the name of the unique party that runs a government is still officially the “communist party.” It is clearly not opposed to capitalism, if by capitalism we mean private ownership of enterprises. The Communist Party of China follows an economic model it describes, self-referentially, as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” One of those characteristics that has evolved recently in Chinese culture resembles Western capitalism: the encouragement and adulation of wealth. Many think this has gone too far — that the culture itself is being corrupted by the most recent Western import: the worship of money.
Zeng Yuli, analyzing contemporary Chinese culture, observes with sadness that: “People in all cultures look up to the more powerful members of society. But when taken to the extreme, this mentality reinforces the exclusion of, and prejudice toward, society’s less privileged.”
Chinese culture has always had held in high regard the notion of prosperity, which focused more on the direct rewards of effort and hard work than the accumulation of wealth. Once China, under Deng Xiaoping, opened its economy to global markets, the country and its communist party became an active and increasingly influential partner in the global capitalist economy. Companies like Ma’s Alibaba, owned by private shareholders and financed through the stock market, drive the economy.
But unlike the West, where the workers’ say in the life of any enterprise has been reduced to insignificance as everything is focused on shareholder interest, every Chinese enterprise, including foreign firms, has a Communist Party cell in its governing structure. The cell presumably represents the interests of the workers and the community at large in the fashioning of corporate policy.
Jack Ma already had the best of all possible worlds. He is celebrated even more in China for his wealth than for his entrepreneurial talent; he capitalized his company in New York and is admired across the globe. And now it has been officially revealed he is a member of the Communist Party, which theoretically means he is part of the party cell within the company that represents the nation’s rather than shareholder interests.
In the capitalist West, this would appear to be the source of a conflict of interest, where everyone is defined in terms of their competing position. This may simply be a symptom of the West’s inability to understand and deal with Chinese culture.
Ma provides a different model from anything we find in the West of how one becomes a wildly successful entrepreneur. Ma’s parents were musician storytellers. Ma Yun (Jack’s Chinese name) grew up in an atmosphere of that stimulated and rewarded creativity and communicative skills. His upbringing didn’t conform to the standard pattern of the traditional mandarin profile that, since Confucius, has provided the model for successful careers in Chinese. He failed the national Chinese university entrance exam twice, did a teaching degree and struggled to find employment, ending up as a poorly paid English teacher.
His openness to other cultures and his creativity led him launch a series of business ventures linked to the emerging internet in the 1990s. Unlike Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and even Mark Zuckerberg, who arrived a generation later, he didn’t start with a technical vision of human needs, but one that was based on his perception of relationships.
With a degree of ambition and self-reliance that would have impressed Ayn Rand, Ma became the richest man in China. He pioneered the growth of the internet in China without the slightest notion of coding. But unlike Ayn Rand’s heroes, he retained a strong sense of social responsibility, to the point of critiquing his own choices. The Guardian tells us that “15 years ago he gave hundreds of speeches warning about the impact of e-commerce,” something the rest of the world is still waiting for Jeff Bezos to do.
With a nod to Spider-Man, Ma once said: “With great money comes great responsibility.” He added: “The more you do, the more responsibilities you have, and the more problems you will encounter.” And dismissing the satisfaction money brings, he claims, “Only by improving people’s lives can I be truly happy.”
Capitalist or communist, Jack Ma seems a little more human than most of the admired business leaders in the West.
Peter Isackson is an author, media producer and chief visionary officer of Fair Observer Training Academy.
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