Long before he became China’s most globally prominent business figure, Jack Ma was just an English teacher trying to persuade his friends that they would one day buy things over the internet.
His vision changed China. As Ma makes plans to leave Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., his legacy will be an enduring one. He did far more than just create and build an e-commerce juggernaut into the most valuable company in Asia, impressive as that may be.
He showed that an innovative private enterprise could thrive under a Communist Party regime once hostile, and still at times suspicious, of ambitious capitalists. To a remarkable degree, his path-breaking success created a model that gave rise to a technology industry that rivals Silicon Valley, propelling a Chinese economy on track to eclipse that of the U.S.
Ma is now China’s richest man, worth about $40 billion, and a headliner at global talking salons like Davos. At the same time, he’s complied with and fiercely defended his country’s ruling party even as it exerts ever tighter control over media, the internet and any hint of dissident speech. He’s gone so far as to praise the stability of one-party rule and chastise Western companies like Google that objected to China’s censorship practices. His approach demonstrated how entrepreneurial success can coexist with the Communist regime, paving the way for a new wave of startups.