MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
China has been in the news a lot lately. Its economy is booming, its military is modernizing, but some of the country's most important changes are taking place within the minds of its people. This week, NPR's Rob Gifford will introduce us to five Chinese people who are breaking out of old Chinese mind-sets. More and more, they are making choices for themselves. Our series is called A Nation of Individuals, and today we begin with Jack Ma. He's founder of a Web site called Alibaba.
ROB GIFFORD reporting:
Jack Ma runs a business-to-business, or B-to-B, online trading company called Alibaba. He says he's the CEO, but says that stands for `Chief Educational Officer.' A former English teacher, Ma certainly seems to have some lessons to share as he shows visitors around his fancy new offices in the eastern city of Hangzhou, a few hours' drive from Shanghai.
Mr. JACK MA (CEO, Alibaba): Usually in China, the boss is on the top. Most of the companies put the CEO on the 10th floor. But I think on the top floor should be our customers, should be our employees, our colleagues. So I stand on the lowest floor, that is the sixth floor. So they are my bosses. And my favorite floor is number 10 and number nine, where the people are talking to the customers. I always drop there and listen to them.
GIFFORD: Ma is not just turning office feng shui on its head; he's trying to turn Chinese business upside-down, too. If China is to become the economic superpower that many say it could be, people like Jack Ma may be the most important in shaping it. Of course, China's thousands and thousands of Industrial Revolution-style factories will continue to churn out almost everything the world wants to buy, but people like Jack Ma say that stepping out of the old way of thinking may be just as important as utilizing cheap labor and raising factory productivities.
Mr. MA: (Foreign language spoken)
GIFFORD: The company's shiny new offices hum with life; 2,300 hundred people, mostly in their 20s, taking and making calls. Alibaba's business is putting purchasers around the world in touch with producers. Factories pay a fee to have their product descriptions translated into English and listed on the Alibaba Web site, and anyone around the world can then go online and find the producer directly, thus cutting out the middle man and the middle costs.
Traditionally, doing business in China is all about the middle man, or the well-connected official through whom many business transactions must go. This makes for corruption on a massive scale that angers the general population and hinders China's growth. Jack Ma is trying nothing less ambitious than changing Chinese corporate culture, especially among the small- and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs.
Mr. MA: Making this company be different, making this company great. I think we are changing the Chinese business people doing business, especially the small-, medium-size co--we give them opportunities on the Internet. We are also teaching how to do business, how to hire people, fire people. We are changing the SME. SME, small-, medium-sized companies, and private companies will be the engine of Chinese economy.
GIFFORD: It's a huge task, but Ma is making progress and making some money, too. Alibaba has 5.6 million companies registered through its Chinese Web site and 1.8 million through its international Web site. Ma says more than 11,000 new companies are joining each day.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter and applause)
GIFFORD: Jack Ma's attempt to overturn 55 years of Communist commercial practice, not to mention two and a half millennia of hierarchical Confucianism, begins with the training sessions for his new employees. You rarely hear clapping and laughing like this in traditional Chinese companies, but employees here are encouraged to express themselves in training sessions. And they're drilled in the company values of integrity, honesty, passion and teamwork.
Alibaba also brings customers from all over China, especially far inland, to its headquarters in Hangzhou to train them in online business, accounting transparency and efficiency. Ma says the small-town businessmen see him and his success and realize the Internet really is leveling the business playing field.
Mr. MA: You know, I just came back upstairs meeting some of our customers, and they said, well, they respected us especially respected me. One of the points is that I don't have any background, a strong background, like, my father is a government officer or is a rich guy. You know, we are from a very normal family in China. And I'm not a supersmart guy, but if we can make it, they think, well, they also can make it.
GIFFORD: Employees, too, like Sabrina Pung(ph) of Alibaba's Web site development, and Julie Han(ph) of the B-to-B auction department, say working for Jack Ma is a breath of fresh air compared to other hierarchical, bureaucratic Chinese companies.
Unidentified Woman #1: Before Alibaba, he was a teacher, you know. So maybe--I think he brings some culture of the school to the company that's more simple and more passionate.
Unidentified Woman #2: In the traditional companies, most of the people do just as his boss ask him to do. They do not discuss. In Alibaba, we can discuss with our boss and mostly, we all look like a friend and we can talk about the different idea about one's ...(unintelligence).
GIFFORD: Ma is under to illusions about the scale of the task ahead, but he says it's not just about opportunities or corporate culture. The crucial thing about the Internet in China now, he says, is that it's starting to make Chinese people think outside the box, and that's not something they're used to.
Mr. MA: I think it really helps to stimulate the individualism of the Chinese people. When we were young, we hear only one voice. Today, you got opportunity to hear 101 songs in different voices, and you will judge--you have to judge yourself. When you judge yourself, it is a way to train your innovation.
GIFFORD: And perhaps that will be one of the defining factors of whether China goes on to greatness, if the choices which come with the Internet can make business fairer and opportunities greater for more people, but perhaps most of all if they can bring back the spirit of innovation that centuries ago gave the world paper and printing, the compass and gunpowder, but somehow that got lost along the way. Rob Gifford, NPR News.
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