This item has been updated.
The business sections of Chinese bookstores teem with titles on Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and other Western luminaries. But there are few, if any, books about Chinese business leaders. Jack Ma could change that.
With a massive IPO of his company expected later this year, Ma will enter the firmament of global tech visionaries. A brilliant businessman and innovator, the Alibaba founder may be the first Chinese CEO to be widely venerated by his nation—and the rest of the world. Maybe not now, though.
Ma was recently quoted praising former president Deng Xiaoping, saying Deng made the right call in ordering the deaths of hundreds of Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. In an interview with the South China Morning Post (paywall), Ma said:
A company’s CEO, it doesn’t matter if it’s an Alibaba incident or the splitting-off of Alipay [the controversial spinoff of Alibaba's Paypal-like payment service], in that moment, it’s like you’re Deng Xiaoping on ‘6/4′ [the date when the army killed protesters in Tiananmen Square]. He was the top decision-maker in the country; he had to be steady, he had to make those cruel decisions. This was not a perfect decision, but it was the most correct decision. It was the most correct decision at the time.
Update: John Spelich, a spokesperson for Alibaba, told Quartz that Ma denies the statement. “I was trying to describe the circumstances under which I made tough decisions when I was CEO of the company,” says Ma. “Regrettably my remarks as reported [by the SCMP] did not reflect what I told the reporter, and caused a terrible misunderstanding.” Spelich indicates that the SCMP is currently investigating how the original quote was recorded. However, Wang Xiangwei, editor-in-chief of the SCMP, told Quartz on July 18 that the newspaper stands by the article.
It’s understandable that Ma would seek to clarify. For anyone but a Communist Party member speaking on the record, it’s not a politically—or morally—popular stance to take.
It certainly wasn’t on Sina Weibo. Users were mostly enraged and disgusted by Ma’s comments, reported the Wall Street Journal (paywall). “We should organize a mass of people to invade Alibaba’s annual meeting and force Jack Ma to apologize to the dead,” said one. Others called for boycotts. Activists are now circulating an online petition asking him to apologize.
Could Ma’s enthusiasm for sending in the tanks (as reported by the SCMP) hurt his company? A boycott of Taobao, Alibaba’s online marketplace, could be damaging: Though it has 500 million consumers, there’s no shortage of alternatives. His remarks could also tarnish Ma’s reputation among Western investors.
But even if he did say it, neither of those outcomes seems that likely. Beyond Sina Weibo users, it’s hard to know the Chinese populace’s views on Tiananmen, thanks to decades of censorship. That has also robbed the massacre of its potential symbolism, making it an unlikely source of collective outrage. How potential investors in Alibaba’s IPO might react if the story gains legs is harder to say. But Ma no longer runs Alibaba, a possible conscience-salve for uneasy investors.
Assuming the quote turns out to have been accurate, the bigger question will be why Ma said it in the first place. The fact that the Tiananmen protesters posed no threat to anyone else’s safety is uncontroversial. It’s also bizarre that his championing of Deng was basically unprompted—Ma spoke in response to a question about Ma’s responsibilities after the departure of former Alibaba.com CEO David Wei, who stepped down in the wake of a fraud scandal.
Was Ma flaunting his Communist Party bona fides to his political patrons? Does he genuinely identify with Deng’s decision? Impossible to say. But if it turns out that he made those comments, he basically equated the Jack Ma management style with the Party’s vilest aspect. Not great for the legacy, no matter how brilliant you are.