In a new documentary series on PBS, Bruce Feiler accompanies Americans on pilgrimages to six of the world's holiest sites.
The Wall Street Journal has said that Alibaba is China’s internet crown jewel. The man behind it is Jack Ma, a former English teacher in China who came to the U.S. in the mid-90s and saw the potential for the internet in China.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW, and the Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba said today that it has hired a former senior official from the U.S. Treasury Department, James Wilkinson, as its new head of international corporate affairs. The hiring comes ahead of Alibaba's planned initial public offering in the United States. We want to learn more now about the company and its founder, Jack Ma, who is the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary called "Crocodile in the Yangtze."
The filmmaker is Porter Erisman, who worked at Alibaba in its early days and joins us from Tokyo. Porter, welcome.
PORTER ERISMAN: Thanks for having me here, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, you worked at Alibaba back in 2000. The company, at that point, was run out of an apartment. Did you have any sense that something like this would happen, that Alibaba could potentially be the biggest IPO in U.S. history?
ERISMAN: Yeah, actually, when I first interviewed with the company, they were still working out of an apartment. And it's funny, because I enjoyed the idealism, the enthusiasm the team had, but I really had no idea it would grow to become this big.
HOBSON: Well, what do you think happened?
ERISMAN: Oh, you know, it's interesting. A lot of things happened. I think China has proven now that ecommerce is more important to developing countries like China than it really is to developed countries. Even though ecommerce was quicker to take off in the U.S., once it finally took root in China, it proved to be a much bigger influence on the overall economy.
HOBSON: Tell us about Jack Ma, because you open up your film with him in a huge stadium, dressed up in costume, with all of his thousands of employees around him. He comes across as maybe the Chinese version of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. Or what would you say he is?
ERISMAN: You know, in the U.S., not that many people have heard of him, but in China, if you go to a bookstore in the airport, there'll be entire bookshelves dedicated to books about him. He's a very charismatic guy. He's very innovative. I think Steve Jobs, it's a good comparison. And he really created this company from his apartment, along with his co-founders.
And I think by sheer sort of force of will and a really innovative spirit, he helped Alibaba grow from this tiny company in an apartment to what you could argue is the world's largest ecommerce company.
HOBSON: But he's probably more eccentric than Steve Jobs.
ERISMAN: Yeah, I think he's less camera shy. I think people said Steve Jobs was - he liked to keep kind of a low profile, but Jack, you know, he learned English from foreigners he met walking along the West Lake in Hangzhou. He absorbed a lot of international, new ideas. And so, even in China, he's a pretty unique character. And when we had our all-company events, he along with the other staff and managers, would get onstage and, in a sort of self-deprecating way, dress up and make fun of himself.
HOBSON: Let's listen to a little bit of him. This is from your film, and he's just discovered the Internet, and here he is describing what he discovered when he first went online.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CROCODILE IN THE YANGTZE")
JACK MA: I searched the word beer, B-E-E-R, beer, a very simple word. I do not know why I searched for beer. Beer, and I found American beer, Germany beer and no Chinese beers. I was curious. I searched China, and all search engines say no China, no data.
HOBSON: Tell us what happened then. How did he go from that experience to doing what he did?
ERISMAN: At that time, he was running a translation company in the town of Hangzhou. And when he went to the U.S. and he discovered the Internet, he thought it was something that was really going to change the world. So he went back to China, and he did his best to try and convince businesses and the government to sort of put businesses online, to help use the Internet to introduce Chinese companies to companies overseas.
His first attempt actually really failed, but then later, he started Alibaba in 1999, and obviously, that's done a lot better.
HOBSON: Well, why was it so hard to convince the Chinese officials that this was something worth getting behind? At that point, the Internet was already really starting to get going in the United States.
ERISMAN: Yeah, in 1995, when he first discovered the Internet, it was still a time in China where if you had a fax machine, you had to register it with the government. So information, media, it was very strictly controlled. And so when he tried to introduce the Internet to people, I think the original bureaucrats he met with were actually a little bit frightened of it.
HOBSON: All right, let's talk about your story, too, Porter Erisman, and let's listen to a little bit from the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CROCODILE IN THE YANGTZE")
ERISMAN: Hello, and welcome to another episode of "China Through Foreigners' Eyes. My name is Porter Erisman, and I come from Denver, Colorado, in the United States.
HOBSON: That was a show that you were doing before you were working for Alibaba. But tell us about your story. How did you get started working at a Chinese company?
ERISMAN: Yeah, it's interesting. I went to China in 1994 to learn Mandarin. Then I fell into a sort of interesting position, which was host of a travel show on Chinese National TV. And for me, it was a way, after studying Mandarin, to travel around China, see what was going on on the ground, get a little bit of a glimpse behind the scenes of how China operated.
I traveled around, did that for about six months, and it convinced me that I wanted to really establish a career in China. So after going to business school, I came back in '98, and it was just about that time the Internet started to really take off in China.
HOBSON: And Jack Ma hired you in just a few minutes.
ERISMAN: Well, yeah, his - you know, Jack's a kind of an entrepreneur who - he really makes decisions based on the gut. And at that time, I flew to Shanghai, met with him, and within just a few minutes, it seemed like we got along well, we could trust each other, and he makes decisions that quickly.
HOBSON: Given your history in China and working for this company, what do you think about the fact that if you go to China, and you try to Google something, or you try to go to Facebook, you can't get on? There's censorship. You're unable to do that. What do you think about the Chinese censorship of the Internet?
ERISMAN: Yeah, to me, actually, it's extremely frustrating. I mean, it's one of the reasons I'm in Tokyo right now, because I can't easily access the Internet from China for international websites. The interesting thing is that over time, the Internet has opened China in a lot of ways, even though the government, in many ways, has clamped down and blocked more websites.
So, obviously, as an American, personally, I'd like to see China open the doors to the global Internet. But the thing that gave me encouragement all along is that every day, you could see the improvements that the Internet was bringing to the lives of ordinary people in China. And people can do about 99 percent of the things they want to do on the Internet in China. It's just that 1 percent that, obviously, they have difficulties with.
HOBSON: Well, but that's an important 1 percent. You can't search for things like Tiananmen in China.
ERISMAN: Right, exactly. Well, that's - I mean, obviously, that's a major issue that, personally, I'd like to see changed. But the nice thing is that there's a growing middle class in China. It's bringing about change. The government's gotten more responsive, and it's gotten more democratic, even though democracy hasn't come to China in a Western sense.
HOBSON: What do you think Jack Ma's ultimate goal is? Because he's about to get one of the big things he wants, which is a major IPO in the U.S.
ERISMAN: We had originally set an IPO as a goal, and then over time, we resisted it, because we realized that it can bring a lot of pressure on a company. He's someone who sort of has the heart of an English teacher. He measures his own success by the impact that Alibaba has on the lives of employees and customers. So I think his goal is to see China change as much for the better as possible.
Anyone who's ever visited Alibaba and seen what's happening on the ground can really see that, yeah, China is changing, and that even with all the issues at the government level, on the grassroots level, there's a lot of cause for hope.
HOBSON: Porter Erisman, who worked at Alibaba in its early days and tells that story in a new film - soon to be released - about Jack Ma called "Crocodile In The Yangtze." Porter, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ERISMAN: Great, thanks for having me.
HOBSON: And you can see a clip from the film at our website, hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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