Jack Ma: The billionaire trying to stop coronavirus (and fix China’s reputation)

The richest man in China opened his own Twitter account last month, in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak. So far, every one of his posts has been devoted to his unrivalled campaign to deliver medical supplies to almost every country around the world.

“One world, one fight!” Jack Ma enthused in one of his first messages. “Together, we can do this!” he cheered in another.

The billionaire entrepreneur is the driving force behind a widespread operation to ship medical supplies to more than 150 countries so far, sending face masks and ventilators to many places that have been elbowed out of the global brawl over life-saving equipment.

But Ma’s critics and even some of his supporters aren’t sure what he’s getting himself into. Has this bold venture into global philanthropy unveiled him as the friendly face of China’s Communist Party? Or is he an independent player who is being used by the Party for propaganda purposes? He appears to be following China’s diplomatic rules, particularly when choosing which countries should benefit from his donations, but his growing clout might put him in the crosshairs of the jealous leaders at the top of China’s political pyramid.

Other tech billionaires have pledged more money to fight the effects of the virus – Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is giving $1bn (£0.8bn) to the cause. Candid, a US-based philanthropy watchdog that tracks private charitable donations, puts Alibaba 12th on a list of private Covid-19 donors. But that list doesn’t include shipments of vital supplies, which some countries might consider to be more important than money at this stage in the global outbreak.

No one else other than the effervescent Ma is capable of dispatching supplies directly to those who need them. Starting in March, the Jack Ma foundation and the related Alibaba foundation began airlifting supplies to Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and even to politically sensitive areas including Iran, Israel, Russia and the US.

Ma has also donated millions to coronavirus vaccine research and a handbook of medical expertise from doctors in his native Zhejiang province has been translated from Chinese into 16 languages. But it’s the medical shipments that have been making headlines, setting Ma apart.

“He has the ability and the money and the lifting power to get a Chinese supply plane out of Hangzhou to land in Addis Ababa, or wherever it needs to go,” explains Ma’s biographer, Duncan Clark. “This is logistics; this is what his company, his people and his province are all about.”

A friendly face

Jack Ma is famous for being the charismatic English teacher who went on to create China’s biggest technology company. Alibaba is now known as the “Amazon of the East”. Ma started the company inside his tiny apartment in the Chinese coastal city of Hangzhou, in the centre of China’s factory belt, back in 1999. Alibaba has since grown to become one of the dominant players in the world’s second largest economy, with key stakes in China’s online, banking and entertainment worlds. Ma himself is worth more than $40bn.

Officially, he stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2018. He said he was going to focus on philanthropy. But Ma retained a permanent seat on Alibaba’s board. Coupled with his wealth and fame, he remains one of the most powerful men in China.

It appears that Ma’s donations are following Party guidelines: there is no evidence that any of the Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundation donations have gone to countries that have formal ties with Taiwan, China’s neighbour and diplomatic rival. Ma announced on Twitter that he was donating to 22 countries in Latin America. States that side with Taiwan but who have also called for medical supplies – from Honduras to Haiti – are among the few dozen countries that do not appear to be on the list of 150 countries. The foundations repeatedly refused to provide a detailed list of countries that have received donations, explaining that “at this moment in time, we are not sharing this level of detail”.

However, the donations that have been delivered have certainly generated a lot of goodwill. With the exception of problematic deliveries to Cuba and Eritrea, all of the foundations’ shipments dispatched from China appear to have been gratefully received. That success is giving Ma even more positive attention than usual. China’s state media has been mentioning Ma almost as often as the country’s autocratic leader, Xi Jinping.

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