Chinese internet giant Alibaba’s executive chairman Jack Ma once liked to call himself CEO, by which he meant “chief education officer”. Such a role, he explained, required him to pass on his thinking and experience.
Since stepping down as Alibaba’s chief executive in 2013, Ma has also taken on an unofficial position as corporate China’s CDO, defined by netizens as “chief diplomatic officer”.
Ma’s travel itinerary has been intense. “A global ambassador for Chinese business, he spent 800 hours aloft last year – visiting princes, presidents, and prime ministers and lots of mere businesspeople too,” Fortune magazine noted in 2017.
Some of the work has been with the United Nations, which appointed Ma as a special advisor in 2016 to promote small business activities in developing countries (and giving him visa-free access worldwide as a result).
Earlier this month Ma was back on the road, bringing 35 senior Alibaba executives with him on a trip to Israel. According to Israeli news website Globes, he started his week-long stay with a visit to the Dead Sea, where he “reportedly floated in the water”. The billionaire then donned a Jewish kippah and touched the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. In the same city, the Alibaba delegation met up with officials fromJerusalem Venture Partners, with whom the Chinese firm is partnering to invest in local start-ups (Alibaba’s Damo Academy, another of its initiatives in promoting technology collaboration, has already put one of its eight R&D centres on Israeli soil).
Xinhua reported that Ma also met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tel Aviv University after meeting its students and graduates in a question and answer session.
Ma was on eloquent form at the event. “You don’t have any car brands, but you have the best technology for car manufacturing. You don’t have any diamonds, but you have one of the world’s largest diamond exchanges… In my mind, Israel represents wisdom, innovation and persistence,” he ventured in his speech.
During some banter with Netanyahu, the prime minister had asked if Israeli-made missiles were available yet on Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce platform.
But the UN’s special advisor was in less playful mood when he concluded his speech to the students by seeming to link technological change with periods of wider, political upheaval.
“By standing on this land I understand how important peace is,” he said. “The first technological revolution, directly or indirectly, caused World War One. The second technological revolution caused World War Two. Now we are entering the third technological revolution. Human beings should have no wars, but if there’s going to be war, the war should be against poverty, disease, and [threats to] the environment.”
A report in February from the Israel-based IVC Research Center says that Chinese direct investment and M&A in Israel was not yet significant and still “waiting for lift-off”. Activity has been rising, though, from 18 Chinese investments in local start-ups in 2013 to 34 last year (there are also regular Sino-Israeli investment events, see WiC372).
In what appeared to be an effort to mirror China’s neutral stance in the Middle East, the billionaire then crossed the West Bank to Jordan, where he was received by King Abdullah. Here the Jack Ma Foundation announced a $3 million donation to charities supported by Queen Rania who, Xinhua reported, accompanied Ma to meet 20 Jordanian venture capitalists.
If Ma’s trip was an unofficial statement of China’s Middle East policy – balance and cooperation – the contrast with the decisionmaking of the Trump administration looms large. A week after Ma left the region, the US relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that sparked Palestinian rioting that resulted in 58 deaths, according to BBC reports.
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