Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma gave a politician-like performance at the World Economic Forum

Stage presence.
Stage presence.
Image: EPA/Laurent Gillieron
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Chinese billionaire Jack Ma made an on-stage appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos yesterday (Jan. 18)—and showed why he’s considered a smooth political operator.

During a half-hour interview, the Alibaba CEO appeared relaxed as he handled a range of questions from moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin and the audience—not all of them easy. Some touched upon topics Beijing considers sensitive, including Taiwan and a potential US-China trade war. But Ma showed a mix of charm and quick thinking and, notably, said nothing that went against the Chinese Communist Party’s official positions.

In answering Sorkin’s questions he argued his e-commerce company is taking important measures against counterfeit goods, possesses a better business model than Amazon, and will create a million American jobs (as he promised Donald Trump this month). He also shared his theory on where the US economy has gone wrong in the past three decades.

Ma said a trade war between the US and China would be a “disaster” for the world and its two largest economies: “When trade stops, the war starts.”

On the issue of Taiwan, which Trump has threatened to use as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, Ma said: “If you do the Taiwan issue, it is like [going] against 1.4 billion people.” (His line echoed Beijing’s complaint that Trump had “hurt the feelings” of the Chinese people.) But, he quickly added, “This is another issue. We’re talking about trade. We’re not talking about Taiwan.”

The last question was about Alibaba’s Sesame Credit system, which offers users discounts and VIP services based on a sort of social credit score. Critics say it can be used by Chinese authorities to monitor citizens’ private lives, with factors behind the score including shopping habits, activity on social media, and credit card payments.

“With the Sesame Credit score, how to you assure you are not messing up people’s lives?” asked an audience member.

Ma started to stumble through a reply before hitting on an idea of what to say:

“That’s why I should retire early, when I’m young. The world is so wonderful, why should [I] be the CEO of Alibaba all the time? I’m coming to this world not to work. I want to come to this world to enjoy my life. I don’t want to die in my office. I want to die on the beaches.”

The response drew laughs—and allowed Ma to avoid the question.