How China Has Evolved From Mao to Ma

By John McNeel in General
April 07, 2015 04:00

Amongst the steady barrage of tweetable soundbites and eminently enlightened meaningfulness that tends to emanate from the annual global powerfest that is the World Economic Forum, this quote from CEO Jack Ma caught my attention last week.

"If you want to win in the 21st century, you have to ... empower others, making sure other people are better than you are. Then you will be successful."

He made the comment at Davos only a few short months after his brainchild, the fast-moving e-commerce giant -- a quintessentially modern venture born in the crucible of the old/new China, a country that used to be all about monolithic centralized power but is now more and more about disruptive innovation -- had completed one of the most successful IPOs of all time... which the somewhat disingenuously modest founder was shrewd enough to characterize as "small", even if it gave the company a value greater than that of Amazon.

What's striking about Ma's ode to empowerment is the way that it simultaneously appropriates while turning on its head the Communist paradigm of "power to the people." The notion that another member of society could be "better than you are" was once anathema in the rigorous egalitarianism of the Maoist worldview, as much as "winning" and "success" were considered to be concepts exemplary of the ills of Western capitalism.

And yet, the nature of the empowerment that some technology affords -- and specifically e-commerce technology such as the kind has developed and refined -- is the power for people to get more stuff, while the people who work for the company those people are buying from "get ahead," and the company itself marches steadily towards global market domination.

It reminds me of hearing an all-girl pop group from the Philippines do a remarkably convincing -- and totally un-ironic -- rendition of Madonna's "Material Girl" in the night club of a hotel I was staying at in Beijing a little over twenty five years ago.

It was my first trip to China and it was the spring of 1989. I was working on a project for the global powerhouse ABB, a lavish brochure that was modeled after National Geographic magazine and that was entitled, also without irony or modesty, "The Art of Being Local Worldwide."

An unforeseen event nearly threw a wrench in the works of our little junket: the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, a senior Communist Party official known for his zealous promotion of economic and societal reforms. Students began demanding Yaobang's rehabilitation since, before his death, he had been indicted by conservative members of the party for putting underway in China a "bourgeois liberalization" that in their view threatened to destroy the fabric of Communist society.

I will never forget the sight of scores of People's Liberation Army soldiers, arms akimbo and interlocked, lining the streets for miles on end on the day of Hu Yaobang's funeral, forming a human wall to keep the liberated people of Beijing from becoming too unruly in celebrating the reformer's legacy.

In the days after that, I was able to witness and even talk to students soliciting signatures on petitions in Tiananmen Square. Buoyed by an initial sense of optimism in the face of the government's apparent unwillingness to crack down too strenuously on the peaceful demonstrations, both students and even the population at large appeared to welcome the change that was in the air.

Adjacent to the statue in the square which the demonstrators had claimed as their base of operations stood a prominent but, at the time highly anomalous, symbol of Western culture, an outlet of the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food chain that occupied a building the size of a small palace. KFC was one of the first Western consumer franchises to plant a flag in China, a country upon which, today, many Western brands increasingly depend for their growth.

One of the tidbits from his personal narrative that Jack Ma shared with his audience in Davos last week was also one of his first failures, as a young man still decades away from becoming a billionaire: it was the story of his rejection, in his home province of Hangzhou, when he applied for his first job at an outlet of ... KFC.

China's trajectory in the 25 years since those student demonstrations of 1989 ended so badly and Tiananmen Square became so notorious, is one of gradual and inexorable empowerment of people like Jack Ma, who was able to pick himself up from the indignity of failing to cut mustard for a job in fast food to build one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Now he sits celebrated on one of the world's most prestigious and visible stages to proclaim that meritocracy rules, that empowerment of people is the key to successful ventures anywhere and everywhere.

"Grow your mind, grow your culture, grow your values, grow your wisdom," Ma urged his audience towards the end of his comments at Davos... to which he might easily have added, "grow your business."

He then concluded, again with a masterstroke of understatement, "I think China is going in this direction."

As we marked in 2014 the twenty-fifth anniversary of the terrible events of Tiananmen Square, it's both sobering and comforting to know that China, and the Chinese people, are squarely and resolutely on the path towards human, and individual, empowerment.

(This was published on LinkedIn earlier this year.)

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