US President-elect Donald Trump received a somewhat unusual guest to the Trump Tower in New York on Monday — Alibaba founder Jack Ma.
“It was a great meeting. Jack and I are going to do some great things,” Trump told reporters afterward, praising Ma as “a great, great entrepreneur, one of the best in the world.”
This characterization would appear to be a bit inconsistent with Trump’s increasingly belligerent stance toward China. One of the many crimes that Trump has bashed China for is rampant intellectual property theft.
Of course, there is perhaps no more notorious purveyor of knockoff goods in the world than Alibaba. As one small example, Quartz notes that on its Taobao platform you can purchase a “Make America Great Again” hat for as a little as $0.50, compared with a $25 price tag on Trump official merchandise store.
While you’re on China’s largest online shopping platform, you can also pick up a 10-meter-tall Trump-rooster balloon with its design stolen from an American artist.
It’s shenanigans like these that have caused Taobao to wind back up on the US government’s naughty list of “notorious markets” for fake goods once again after being taken off the list in 2012.
While the dreaded blacklist doesn’t actually carry any direct penalties, it does damage Alibaba’s credibility at a time when the company is trying to expand more into the American market.
— Alibaba Group (@AlibabaGroup) January 9, 2017
In meeting with Trump, Ma captured headlines by vowing to create 1 million American jobs over the next five years. While Trump’s team may cast Ma’s promise as yet another example of Trump’s otherworldly negotiating powers, the fact is that Alibaba has been attempting to increase its presence in the US even before Trump descended down his escalator to announce his candidacy.
In June 2015, Ma launched a major charm offensive at American small business owners, declaring Alibaba’s commitment to creating American jobs by helping the “little guy” connect with consumers in the vast global digital marketplace.
In his “stump speech,” Ma mentioned Alaskan fisherman and Washington cherry farmers as just a few examples of local American businesses helped by his company. Ma said that as incomes rise in China, Chinese consumers will increasingly demand higher quality products and a more diverse range of goods. And that’s where American producers come in.
“China has been focused on exporting for the past 20 years, and I think in the next 10 to 20 years China should be focusing on importing. China should learn to buy, China should spend the money, China should buy a lot of its things globally. And I think that American small business, American-branded products, should use the Internet and go to China,” Ma said.
Still, even if Alibaba succeeds in attracting American small business clients, it’s not exactly clear how the company will manage to create the promised 1 million American jobs. CNBC notes:
Like Etsy or eBay, Alibaba enables third-party sellers in China to take their own businesses to the web. The company only had 36,446 full-time employees, almost all in China, as of March 31, according to SEC filings. But with more than 10 million active sellers as of 2015, Alibaba estimates its China retail marketplaces “contributed to the creation of over 15 million job opportunities.”
Amazon, by comparison, had about 230,800 employees as of the end of 2015, though it, too, creates other jobs through its sellers, contractors and supporting services. Wal-Mart, which is strengthening its online presence, employs 2.3 million associates around the world, including 1.5 million in the U.S., as of the end of fiscal 2016.
Following Ma’s meeting with Trump, Alibaba’s shares jumped up by over 1%. For those wondering how exactly the meeting came to be set up, it’s important to note that Jay Clayton, Trump’s nominee to head the SEC, was the one who led Alibaba’s record-breaking $24-billion IPO on the New York Stock Exchange back in 2014.
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