Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma on the Power of American Ideas

Founder of China's largest web company speaks to ABC's Diane Sawyer.

November 15, 2010, 6:26 PM

Nov. 15, 2010— -- In a country that still restricts the flow of information, one Chinese man has made a fortune by harnessing the power of that vast information source, the Internet.

Jack Ma, 46, is the founder of of Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce website. It has made him a billionaire and changed the way that the Chinese do business.

ABC's Diane Sawyer spoke to Ma today in Hangzhou, China about his work, China's remarkable growth, and the American ideals that he believes have made it possible.

"I think this is the American dreams that make America different," Ma told Sawyer. "Today, Chinese people have the dreams. ... Many years ago, we would wait for the government, now we don't wait for the government."

Some analysts expect Alibaba to generate over $700 million in revenue this year from its websites, including the business-to-business trading and the online auction site Alibaba, which is 40 percent owned by Yahoo!, also operates the China Yahoo! web portal.

By way of comparison, Facebook reportedly generated some $800 million in revenue in 2009.

Ma was born in Hangzhou, now the home base for Alibaba and its 22,000 employees. He started learning English at age 12, and he didn't learn about the Internet until he visited the United States as an adult on a trade delegation in 1995. Realizing the potential, he returned to China to create China Pages that same year, one of the first Chinese Internet companies.

Ma said he believes that American ingenuity is a model for the Chinese.

"Innovation is a culture. When I see the American culture, the American culture is very innovative," Ma said. "To have a culture of innovation takes about two or three generations."

China has certainly been quick to seize on the idea of entrepreneurship. Ma believes that the future of China is rooted in the success of small businesses and American ingenuity, but he also sees value in China's decisiveness.

"When I go there [to America], they are building up a road, and they discuss for two or three years without deciding," Ma said. "But China? Well, let's make it happen. ... I look at many of the nations moving so slowly. China, at least we move fast. Make a decision quick, and we have the culture of doing that."

Alibaba Grows Despite Internet Censorship from Chinese Government

Ma's web company has grown at breakneck speed, despite throttles from the Chinese government on the flow of information online.

"What about censorship?" Sawyer asked. "It's unfathomable and unsupportable to Americans," she added, citing the example of information about Tianamen Square being blocked to Chinese Internet users.

"Well, from my point of view... I do not speak for the politician, I speak for the businesspeople," Ma said. "The Internet has the censorship -- maybe 5, maybe 6, or 7 percent. But 90 percent [freedom] is good. Make use of that. And influence people. Improve the society."

With all the economic change that has come to China in recent decades, Ma has also seen firsthand how political policy has shifted.

"If I talk to you like this 10 years ago, 20 years ago, I would be scared," he told Sawyer. "Twenty years ago, I would probably end up in a prison. Now we can talk. I know the things I talk will be broadcasted. I don't worry about it."

Then there are questions about the the type of change that makes some American uncomfortable. In the race to be the globe's leading superpower, many wonder whether the United States can remain in the lead.

President Obama alluded to those fears in remarks over the weekend.

"America doesn't play for second place. The future we're fighting for isn't as the world's largest importer, consuming products made elsewhere, but as the world's largest manufacturer of ideas and goods sold around the world," the president said.

Ma said he believes that the United States will still be the world's top economy in 10 years, but he believes that things could change by mid-century. One thing he's sure of though, is that American ideals have enduring power.

"Don't lose the American dreams. This is the dream that motivated us. Most of the world," Ma said. "Always think about the mission, and the mission drives you."

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