In a globalised but politically fractious world, the meaning of national borders have transformed in complex ways. While the migration of people becomes an increasingly contentious political issue, the frictionless movement of goods and materials is the fundamental logic that enables contemporary humanity to survive and function. Products cross borders multiple times over the timeline of their creation, and the “made in” tag is a simplistic anachronism with more significance as marketing than as material history. In the past decade, some Western politicians have adopted the populist rhetoric of bringing back manufacture to post-industrial economies as a mechanism for working-class job growth and social cohesion. According to Jack Ma, however, this strategy is incompatible with the rise in automation as well as a failure of vision for the potential of humans in the near future. “We should not talk about ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in America,” he said in 2017. “It’s going to be ‘Made in the Internet.’”

But is it possible to implement an online vision without intervening in the real, offline world? While many hi-tech CEOs seem to have an antagonistic or, at best, distant relationship with governments over issues such as corporate tax avoidance or privacy, Ma has developed a strong public profile as a business leader with a benevolent dream to connect and empower the citizens of countries all over the world. His meetings with countless international political leaders are well-documented in the media, and his forecasts for future development avoid divisive statements that would appear nationalistic or damage Alibaba’s relationship with specific countries. As a form of “Alibaba Diplomacy”, Ma employs the tools of traditional international relations, thus blurring the boundaries between private companies and nation states. Given his aspirations to make Alibaba the fifth-biggest economy in the world in less than 20 years, this research looks at how the online empire is reshaping transnational geographies and socioeconomic structures.



How did you structure your research into Jack Ma’s political engagements and what did you observe? Compared to a governmental or political figure, what makes him unique?

I began the project by building an archive of news articles, which allowed me to analyse his ideological “platform” in terms of specific themes: small and medium enterprises, startups, women entrepreneurs, digital currency, philanthropy, culture, tourism, counterfeiting, environment, logistics, visa facilitation, and so on. I see these themes almost like the elements of Jack Ma’s version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which could be an analogy for how he interacts with foreign governments. (And like the Universal Declaration, almost every country ignores at least some of the rights.) Ma is a private citizen, of course, but in the context of China the private, business, and state functions are highly entangled. At the same time, his rhetoric does not have any overt nationalist implications. He promotes a post-neoliberal vision of a truly global society, and politicians see him as an important ally to increase employment and generate profit in their own countries. At the same time, we should subject his ideas to the same level of scrutiny that applies to political campaigns. His vision appears so consistent and forward-thinking, but some of its building blocks contradict one another—for example, it seems impossible to reconcile the ongoing development of global logistics networks with protection of the environment.

Do you think private companies will in the future absorb more functions that previously were handled by national governments?

That is already the case in China—for example, Alibaba supports police investigations by providing them with data collected on their websites. But it is even more obvious when you look at Alibaba as an organisation with a huge number of branches, including a bank, that reach out to people in similar ways to governmental organs. Generally, there seems to be a flow of power from public authorities to private entities, and a changing relationship between companies and users as a result. In the Middle East, there are private cities that are completely owned by a single company, which also provides all of the services to the inhabitants. In my previous research, I explored this possible future in which we would have two forms of citizenship—one national and one corporate, depending on our association with private organisations.

How do you compare Jack Ma and Alibaba to other large Internet or e-commerce companies in the U.S.? He seems to have a very different relationship to the public, whereas Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are seen as threats to our privacy and democracy, or where Jeff Bezos and Amazon are seen as tax-avoiding, labour-exploiting, and predatory on small businesses?

I think Alibaba is very different to those companies because its success is totally dependent on what happens in the physical world, and that includes working closely with government to implement trade regulations in shipping and storage. Facebook is totally different, it just needs the digital network and maybe a headquarters, and Amazon was built on top of the pre-existing resource of the postal system. But in China, Alibaba has been one of the most powerful drivers of infrastructural development, and in the process it needed to take a more active role in improving how goods travel through the logistics network. They built a system for China first before expanding that system to the rest of the world.

Project Images

Copyright Design Academy Eindhoven. Photographs by Nicole Marnati.