The New Internet Economy: A Chat With Alibaba CTO Wang Jian

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We don’t have our own inventory, our own logistics facilities. Basically, we’re a platform. Our platform connects to the logistics companies. For our cloud computing, we had a developer conference last October. About 5,000 people came to our conference. It’s a lot.

By saying that we are a platform company, basically we are an API company. People interface with us through the APIs.

X: With AliExpress now operating in English, do you see an untapped market in English-speaking customers here in the U.S. and elsewhere?

WJ: Really the beauty of the Taobao is the sellers. There are more than 7 million sellers on that, and also all the items in our database. It’s not just the website, Taobao. It’s really the back end of the Taobao is the beauty. We believe that’s not just for China. Right now, actually, we are the biggest e-commerce company in Russia, because these sellers and these products and items come from Taobao. AliExpress is just another way to explore the power of these sellers. Naturally, it’s easy for us to extend to the English-speaking world. I would say that’s just our early effort of that.

X: I understand Jack Ma had one of his earliest experiences with the Internet in Seattle. Do you know that story?

WJ: The true story is that Jack Ma visited Seattle. I’m not sure the exact date. It’s the very early days of Jack Ma. He visited Seattle downtown. I can’t name the building, but I’ve been to that building with Jack Ma [four years ago]. [On his first trip] that was the first time he saw the Internet. He was really inspired by what he saw. He actually met an American couple [from Seattle], and they showed him the Internet. And he decided he would do something in China. But at that time, only a very few people know the Internet. When he started his first business, he had to set up a website in the United States, and nobody in China could access it. He had to ask somebody to print that website, and send it back to China to show the people in China. That was the very early days of thinking about that. But, definitely by visiting Seattle, and first seeing the Internet, he was a true believer of the Internet.

Jack Ma and team in the early days.

Jack Ma and team in the early days.

X: The Alibaba story, complete with its iconic founder working out of an apartment for the company’s first five years, sounds like it comes right out of Silicon Valley or Seattle, rather than out of China, at least up until now. What is the climate in China like now for technology entrepreneurship and innovation?

WJ: We have provided a cloud service in China, and every customer you see is a young Jack Ma. Just two years ago, there are young guys that started a company in China called Changba. It’s basically a karaoke program on mobile phones. People could run a karaoke competition with a mobile phone. It’s reached like 30 million users in a year or so, and it’s running on the cloud. All these people, you can see the energy and entrepreneurship. It’s much better. That’s why the cloud is important.

X: There’s commentary that you see in the newspapers here from time to time, this U.S. view that some people hold that China will struggle to become the world leader in innovation if it doesn’t encourage greater freedom of expression and critical thinking. Do you have an opinion on that? Is that a wrong view and have things changed more than people realize?

WJ: I can’t say if it’s a wrong view or not. But I definitely can see that actually, people are really getting more innovative, and you see more innovative companies, and you definitely can see the dynamics of that. It’s just changing. That’s probably more important than anything else.

One of the reasons for us to provide a cloud computing service in China is to give people the raw infrastructure for doing innovation. I think with the Internet, it solves a lot of problems that we had before.

Certainly, it takes time. The world is not that flat right now. It just takes time. The world is getting real flat in terms of innovation.

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