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The unlikely titan

Liu Zhihua
Updated: Sep 24,2014 11:41 AM     China Daily

Jack Ma Yun practices tai chi on a street in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.[Photo by Dong Xuming]

Mao Kunlun was delighted when China’s leading e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding Ltd presented the largest initial public offering in history on the New York Stock Exchange on Sept 19-even though Mao didn’t invest in the stock, he knew it would bid well for his company’s earnings.

The editor at China’s largest private publisher, Beijing Motie Book Ltd, knew it was great news for his company when the Alibaba stock jumped 38 percent from $68 to $93 on the first day because the publisher had a few days ago released a book on Alibaba’s founder Ma Yun, who has become China’s richest man since the IPO.

“The IPO’s success is perfect timing for the book’s release,” Mao says.

“It’s going to be huge and sell at least 500,000 copies.”

Book cover of Ma Yun in Cloth Shoes.[Photo/China Daily]

Crossing the 10,000-copy mark makes a book a best-seller in the Chinese market, he explains.

The book-titled Ma Yun in Cloth Shoes because the billionaire always wears cloth shoes except for on very formal occasions-is a chronicle of 27 events that have shaped Ma and Alibaba over the past 22 years.

Its insightfulness owes to the fact the leading author, former journalist Wang Lifen, is Ma’s friend and consequently enjoys the kind of access to the magnate that other authors can only dream of.

Since Wang quit her job as a producer at China Central Television to start the Web TV company Umiwi in her 40s, she also writes with the insight of a tech entrepreneur, Mao says.

The second author, Li Xiang, is an acclaimed business journalist who has reported on Ma and his business for more than a decade. Li presents Ma’s journey within a macroeconomic and historical context, Mao says.

Alibaba has controlled 80 percent of China’s online sales today. It sold $296 billion worth of goods in the 12 months ending in June-an amount estimated to exceed the combined sales of Amazon and eBay during the period, reports The Straits Times in Singapore.

While most of its revenue comes from fees and commissions from the online-shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba ranks among the most diversified conglomerates. It has stakes in Chinese payment services, video streaming and cloud computing.

One of the narrative appeals of Ma’s life is that it’s a rags-to-riches story.

He was born to poorly educated parents in Zhejiang province’s capital Hangzhou in 1964. Ma failed the college entrance examination twice before enrolling in Hangzhou Normal University as an English major.

“He’s certainly China’s most written about entrepreneur,” says Zhu Liangzhou, book purchasing manager and market researcher with CITIC Book, a high-end bookstore chain run by publishing mammoth China CITIC Press.

“Almost everything about him has been written up-his life experiences, his business success, his philosophy. Even his speeches have been compiled into books. Publishers like books about business idols because there’s a ready market. People are curious about how they’ve gotten rich and how they’ve successfully operated a business. Ma is an exceptionally hot subject.”

Zhu believes that’s because of Ma’s success and eloquence, and his slight appearance and humble background make him an unlikely business titan.

Books about Ma and Alibaba are so plentiful that they almost comprise a category on their own, Mao says. Beijing Motie Book has published six titles on the subject. My Living Philosophy: 12 Life Wisdom Classes from Ma Yun to Young People sold more than 100,000 copies soon after its release last year.

Zhu’s publishing house has published five books about Ma, including 2006’s Who Knows Ma Yun and 2009’s Ma Yun’s Ten Years. All of them have sold more than 50,000 copies each.

Beijing MediaTime Books’ vice-president Lang Shiming says he has lost count of the number of books about Ma because new ones come out every year.

Undisclosed Speeches from Ma Yun, a collection of Ma’s speeches to his employees, was published by Red Flag Publishing House in 2010. It was commissioned by the Alibaba Group and sold more than 500,000 copies.

But most books about Ma and Alibaba were largely compiled from hearsay rather than from interviews with Ma or information he or his company confirmed, Lang says.

Zhu and Mao are quick to point out their books are based on interviews.

Mao believes the biggest selling points of Ma Yun in Cloth Shoes are that it’s the second book Ma and Alibaba have approved, and that it’s a comprehensive story of the business giant and an in-depth analysis of his entrepreneurial development.

Wang says in the author’s notes that the book tries to portray Ma in a more objective way because most books about him are so exaggerated that they make him seem unreal.

And most readers would agree that Ma’s story doesn’t require embellishment to make his life the stuff of legend.