Jack Ma: We don't need 'secret government support'

Jack Ma struck a populist tone at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, saying Chinese Internet giant Alibaba will continue to focus on small and mid-sized partners as it grows—and pointedly stating his firm hasn't relied on connections with Beijing in order to succeed.

Ma, who was joined by General Motors CEO Mary Barra and others at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, said he is optimistic about his company's future and plans to rely increasingly on the mobile Internet.

"If I'm not optimistic, I would never survive for 15 years doing Internet in China," Ma said, launching into an interpretation of his self-professed favorite movie quote: "Life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you're going to get, but you have to be realistic."

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. at the 2014 CGI annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. at the 2014 CGI annual meeting in New York.

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Ma said his business plan is to continue to focus on the small and mid-sized companies that drove Alibaba's growth in its first 15 years, and he owes his success to a customer-first model, not connections to Beijing.

"People say, well Jack, if you're successful in China, you must have some strong, secret government support, and this and that," Ma said. "We don't have a rich father, we don't have a powerful uncle—we only have the customers who support us."

In keeping with the theme of the event, Ma emphasized his desire to incorporate philanthropy directly into his company—a Chinese e-commerce giant that experienced a $22 billion IPO on Friday—the largest initial public offering in history.

"I strongly believe we should bury social responsibility into a business model," Ma said, adding that he is particularly interested in preserving the environment and promoting public health. "We don't want us all to have money, but then spend that money in the hospital on medicine."

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Barra, who became the first female CEO of GM last year, also said she saw social responsibility as "a fundamental part" of her business.

She highlighted that the world has become smaller, and that it has "provided a transparency of information, so everyone has higher expectations."