Jack Ma and Jack Dorsey, two of the leading tech entrepreneurs for their respective nations, are currently perfect juxtapositions for how different their respective countries’ systems are in managing the power of tech giants and digital information infrastructure.
In October 2020, Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man and the model idol of China Inc., was preparing to float Ant Group, in what was billed to be the largest IPO in the world. There were signs that the Chinese government was already looking to reign in some of the Chinese Tech Giant’s influence. On October 24, Ma made a rather controversial speech at a gathering of political heavyweights at the Bund Summit in Shanghai. The next day, Ma disappeared from public sightings and Ant’s IPO was halted on November 3, two days before it was supposed to go live.
In parallel timing across the Pacific, Jack Dorsey alongside the CEOs of the other Big Tech firms, were subjected to Section 230 Congressional hearings. There, the Democrats focused on how Big Tech was failing to deal with misinformation and the extremism happening on social media networks. The Republicans focused on the issues of censorship. Both political sides made little actual progress on meaningfully reigning in Big Tech however. On the 8th of January, President Trump was suspended from Twitter and any accounts he made to get around it, were also suspended.
🃋 The Companies That The Jacks Built
Both Jacks were rather fortunate in market timing for their businesses.
China in the 1990s was undergoing a capitalist transformation under Deng Xiaoping’s radical market reforms. During and before this period, China was becoming more open to access by foreigners. As an English teacher by training, Jack Ma was fortunate to work in a tour guide position that enabled him to interact with Western foreigners. His tours allowed him to meet two such foreigners that changed his life and later Alibaba’s trajectory.
The first was his friendship with Australian electrical engineer, Ken Morley. The second was with Yahoo founder, Jerry Yang. The blossoming friendship resulted in Morley sponsoring Ma on his first ever overseas trip, to Newcastle in Australia.
According to Ma, the trip “totally changed” his future and instilled him with an appreciation for how Western market economics worked. The experiences shaped his later exposure to the differences in the U.S. economy to the Chinese one, and how the opportunities for the Chinese Internet economy.
Alongside the opportunistic timing of China’s market reforms, Jack Ma also met a fantastic operator in the form of American educated, Taiwanese financier, Joseph Tsai. Much of Alibaba’s financial and legal structure, it’s international dealings, were created by Tsai. As Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer, Tsai streamlined Alibaba’s operations. Under his instruction, he created operational standardisation and facilitated critical international investments to Alibaba’s growth and strategic acquisitions.
Born in 1976, St Louis, Missouri, Jack Dorsey lived in the country with the highest proliferation of computers in the golden era of Commodore computers. The 1981 release of the Commodore VIC-20 marked the beginning of low-cost home computers. The $299.95 launch was attractive for many home users by its inclusion of BASIC, Atari 2600 compatible controller ports, and color graphics that suited themselves well to video games. The period of cheaper computing and emergence of high school computer clubs, provided an opportunity for Dorsey to study and play around with IBM Computers.
Dorsey’s interest in computing and programming would see him drop out of University and move to California to work as a programmer. Whilst there, he was inspired by LiveJournal and AOL for a Web-based realtime status/short message communication service. When he saw the implementations of instant messaging, Dorsey began to wonder whether he could use instant messaging as a status output to be easily shared among friends.
In 2000, Dorsey built a simple prototype that let him update his friends on his life via BlackBerry and email messaging. The idea didn’t seem to be too popular, so Dorsey began freelancing and also went to work for podcasting startup Odeo. There, he met his Twitter co-founders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams. In 2006, the three would build the Twitter prototype. Evan would blog about it, others who used to work with him at Google would follow suit, and Twitter would become a viral product after becoming popular among attendees of the South by Southwest convention in Austin in March 2007, where Twitter usage would exceed more than 60,000 Tweets per day.
🃋 The American Dream Vs The Chinese Dream
Whilst anecdotal evidence from socio psychological surveys of ordinary Americans and Chinese show that both population-sets primarily value personal efforts and prosperity, the national narratives of what the American and Chinese Dreams are, is very different.
Since the days of the Frontier/Turner Thesis and the musings of how the U.S. works in contrast to Europe by Alexis de Tocqueville, the U.S. has emanated a narrative where one is able to gain upward social mobility through their own merits.
To quote the New Colossus poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.
In contrast to the American Dream, the Chinese Dream has been to restore the lost national greatness of the Middle Kingdom. As the country with the longest continuous history in the world, China has not forgotten its long standing history of geopolitical greatness and the Century of Humiliation by the Western powers and Japan. This Dream has fluctuated alongside the political conveniences of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the more laissez-faire attitude of the 1990s.
The two differing dreams have greatly influenced the narrative and general population sentiment on how each country’s system should be run. In the U.S, there has been a general lack of Government appetite or unwillingness to reign in private corporate power. The rise of a Liberaltarian class has not been favourable to an income and wealth divide for the traditional working class. China in contrast is ruled by a Party that espouses a narrative for Authoritarian order, pointing to periods of great dynasties with a ruling Mandate, lest it falls to the periods of chaos when such dynasties fell apart.
“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white. So long as it catches mice” - Deng Xiaoping
The two different dreams posit different outcomes.
In the U.S., Jack Dorsey is able to boot off the U.S. President from its platform with little to no pushback. Thierry Breton, the European Union’s Digital Commissioner, notes this as a “9/11 moment of social media”. In an opinion piece, he writes that the “fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space”.
In China, even the wealthiest man and most well known Chinese ‘model’ entrepreneur can be removed (i.e. ‘step down’ as executive chairman). The Antitrust laws can be very quickly redrafted and the very biggest Tech companies fined.
Both countries have Tech Giants who are monopolistic in behaviour. In the U.S., allegations range from collusion in employee wages to “copy, acquire, kill” strategies. In China, among all 124 unicorns - private companies with a valuation of $1 Billion USD - 50.8% are controlled or owned by the BAT: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.
As 2021 plays out, we may start to see more signs as to how regulation will form for the management of digital information. In China, it is clear that the CCP views its control over currency and financial flows as critical to its hold over the country’s political economy. Regulation will be implemented on any financial challenger of the CCP’s ‘bank’ status. In the US, it is uncertain how the new Biden administration will manage oversized corporate interests.