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Here’s the really brilliant thing about Trump’s meeting with Alibaba’s Jack Ma

President-elect Donald Trump's meeting with Alibaba founder and executive chairman Jack Ma on Monday was brilliant — but not for the obvious reason of making him look good for being part of a conversation about creating 1 million jobs. What's really smart about it is that puts China on its heels.

Trump and Beijing have been engaged in a back-and-forth rattling of sabers from the minute Trump won the election. Remember that Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwan's president and on the same day Trump met with Ma, a state-run Chinese tabloid warned that China would "take revenge" if Trump backed out of the one-China policy.

Enter Ma, who represents something much more dangerous to China than Taiwan ever could: An idea. In this case, the idea of individualism. And the fact that Ma and Trump discussed the even more individualistic topic of global small business entrepreneurship puts an exclamation point on it all.

Ma, Alibaba, and the Chinese government definitely have one of those "it's complicated" kind of relationships. The company became a worldwide powerhouse in large part due to the way Ma deftly handled the Chinese government. To please shareholders, Ma and Alibaba must not look like they're running afoul of Beijing in any meaningful way. But to please customers, the company has to make sure it provides as open a market as possible to exchange goods and services. It's not easy, and Alibaba's stock price has, as a result, had its volatile ups and downs during the less than two-and-a-half years since its IPO.

From China's perspective, Alibaba and Ma may be something of a necessary evil. No, they're not the kind of large corporation and boss made up of very easily-defined parts that are easier to control. But the company is essential to developing China's consumer market. The new push by Alibaba to move into the nation's rural areas, where half the population still lives, is an aggressive push to modernize the country overall. And that's something the government has been trying to do with only mixed success for almost 70 years.


"Ma has probably gone as far as he can partnering solely with Chinese politicians and bureaucrats in that regard. As he himself has said on a number of occasions, there's only so far China can go economically with a central planning government trying to control too much."

China's government and Alibaba need each other. But like all dependent relationships, there's often at least one partner who would like a little more freedom. And Ma might have found a new ally Monday that could provide him and Alibaba with new options to wriggle a bit away from Beijing's ability to shoot them down at any time.

The Chinese government has long abandoned the idea of Communism, embracing profit-making and even some levels of economic inequality. But what China has not abandoned — from its one-child policy to its non-democratic leadership selection process — is its position on personal liberty and individuality.

But Ma, who is already more famous and recognizable than the last four or five Chinese premiers combined, is bucking that trend. He seems to want to be a global business leader and personality like Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs was. His only hope to do that is to prove he transcends the power or perceived power of the government in Beijing. And he went a long way toward doing that Monday with his summit-like meeting with Trump. It's not exactly like a significant other deciding to "see other people" — but it's close.

The threat to China's government doesn't come so much from the number of jobs an Alibaba deal with the U.S. will create or how much money in America the company will invest. The danger comes from the fact that Ma's individualism, and his current support for individualistic small businesses, could catch on in China in a big way. What the leaders in Beijing must be fearing more than anything else is hundreds of millions of Chinese children saying: "If Jack Ma can do it, why can't I?"

Of course, you don't have to be a totalitarian government to fear and covet the power and profits earned by a private sector superstar. At any time, politicians can target very successful business leaders even in the most democratic countries and find a way to tax, regulate, or even prosecute Icarus-like superstars who fly a little too close to the sun. The smart ones, like Buffett, Jobs, and the CEO/founders of Google and Facebook, find a way to make deals and partnerships with the politicians to gain some level of immunity.

Ma has probably gone as far as he can partnering solely with Chinese politicians and bureaucrats in that regard. As he himself has said on a number of occasions, there's only so far China can go economically with a central planning government trying to control too much. For Beijing, not only is that idea a danger but the fact that the person promoting it is becoming so well-known makes it much worse.

On Trump's side of things, it's not clear whether his meeting with Ma was part of an effort to tweak China or just get another one of those job creating photo ops he loves so much. But thanks to his mostly brilliantly-crafted media image, Ma is becoming the face of Chinese business more than any politician ever could. And if Trump's true goal is to improve and level economic dealings between America and China, a close relationship with Ma could be the most peaceful and least economically volatile way to make it happen.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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