Alibaba’s Jack Ma has big dreams. Having transformed Chinese retail, he’s now determined to reinvigorate globalization.
The way to do so, according to his annual shareholder letter released last week, is for other countries to use or replicate Alibaba’s “commerce infrastructure,” which includes everything from sales portals to payment systems. Ma hopes to see similar systems applied on a “global scale to lift up small and medium businesses and ordinary consumers around the world.”
For big developing nations such as India and Indonesia, facing a future where automation and shrinking global demand are denting the prospects for manufacturing employment, the idea of creating millions of jobs through e-tailing is irresistible. And Ma has numbers on his side: A Chinese government study from 2014 determined that more than 10 million Chinese are directly employed in e-commerce, many of them selling goods on Alibaba platforms. In just the last month, the Indonesian government has made Ma an adviser to its special committee for promoting e-commerce, while a United Nations trade body appointed him to serve as special adviser on youth entrepreneurship and small business.
Yet simply importing the Alibaba platform or model is unlikely to work outside China. Unless other countries recognize and can somehow recreate the unique circumstances that helped produce the mainland’s world-leading e-commerce sector, they’re unlikely to have anywhere near the same degree of success.