Japanese businesses have had a hard time in China since disputed islands in the East China Sea reignited regional tensions, leading to boycotts and the occasional riot. Even the false rumor of Japanese ownership was enough to wipe $2.4 billion off the market cap of noodle maker Master Kong last year.
So it’s a little hard to figure how Chinese nationalists somehow failed to notice that Alibaba, the country’s omnipresent e-commerce giant, is 34.4% owned by the Japanese technology firm Softbank. Thanks to the hype around Alibaba’s IPO, they’re certainly aware now.
“China’s most successful online retailer Alibaba: its largest shareholder is actually Japan’s Softbank. Very hard to accept. Can’t wait for more true-blood Chinese online retailers to rise up,” wrote a Weibo user with the unsubtle user name of “boycott Japanese goods for 10,000 years.”
“[Alibaba co-founder] Jack Ma is a big traitor,” wrote another microblog user, according to Reuters. “Oh my god, Japan’s claws reach everywhere!” said a third.
Softbank made an early bet on Alibaba that ended up being insanely lucrative, turning a $20 million investment in 2000 into an estimated $58 billion stake today. That has earned Softbank boss Masayoshi Son a reputation as the “Warren Buffett of Asia,” as Bloomberg noted, and will make him the single largest beneficiary of Alibaba’s potentially record-setting IPO.
Chinese critics of Alibaba’s foreign ownership, which also includes a 26.6% stake held by Yahoo, should be comforted by the fact that Son has maintained a mostly cordial relationship with Alibaba leadership. He has pledged to support the company’s partners when they nominate directors to the Alibaba board, and will get a board seat himself. In fact, the close partnership between Softbank and Alibaba—and the billions of dollars in value it has helped to create—is the perfect rejoinder to nationalists in China and Japan who are fanning the xenophobic fires.
Additional reporting by Richard Macauley