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.