The founder and executive chairman of Alibaba said Tuesday that his country's savings rate and impending transition to a consumer-led economy mean China can weather a global slowdown. He suggested that China watchers usually get their prognostications wrong.
"You American people worry too much about the China economy," Ma said at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting. "Every time you think China is a problem, we get better, but when you have a high expectation for China, China is always a problem."
Despite a much-discussed domestic slowdown, China has a quality that America doesn't, which could take its economy through tough times, the tech leader said.
"People say 'Well you know the economy's bad, so China consumption will be low.' No, totally different," Ma said. "You Americans love to spend tomorrow's money, and other people's money maybe. ... We Chinese love to save money."
Ma said Chinese consumers are among the world's biggest savers. In fact, the World Bank ranks China fourth among measured areas in terms of gross savings as a percent of GDP — with 50 percent in 2013, it sat behind Kuwait, Bermuda and China's own special administrative region of Macao.
The United States, meanwhile, only had 2013 gross savings of about 18 percent of GDP — just less than Colombia, and just more than Namibia.
"We've been poor for so many years: When we made money we put it in the banks because someday we know that disaster is coming so we can spend the money," Ma said. "When the economy is bad, we still have the money to spend — you guys probably don't, you worry."
China's government has helped bolster the economy in recent years, but the driving force in a consumer economy will likely come from entrepreneurs, Ma said.
"China's government is so strong on investment, so strong on exporting, but they're too weak on domestic consumption," he said, adding that it's now the private sector's time to shine. "In the past 20 years, government is so strong, now they're getting weak: It's our opportunity, it's our showtime to see ... how we can develop real consumption here."
Some market watchers have voiced concerns about Beijing's ability to navigate this economic transition, and if the fall of Chinese exports can be a soft landing for the nation.
For his part, Ma said he sees more of an upside to this economic transformation.
"When we export we have a terrible sky, we have terrible water, we have a terrible environment — when we start to import we're going to be better. So that's all a great opportunity, guys, be happy about that."