Alibaba CEO Deceptive on Nature of Relationship with Chinese Government
In an interview with “60 Minutes” correspondent Lara Logan, broadcast on September 28, 2014, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma made a concerted effort to distance Alibaba from the Chinese government, and to present the company as being independent and free of government interference. However, based on our analysis of the interview, Ma’s behavior strongly suggests that the relationship is far deeper than he is willing to publicly disclose.
In teeing up the segment of the interview in which she addressed the question of Alibaba’s relationship with the Chinese government, Logan explained in a B-roll voiceover, “Ma’s personal fortune makes him the richest man in China, and one of the most influential. It’s impossible to run a business on Alibaba’s scale without official blessing.” She began this segment of the interview with this question:
“You were quoted, saying, ‘When you have millions of small companies using your site, and billions of dollars in transactions every day, the government cares.’ So what do they care about?”
Ma responded, “They care that I can stabilize the country. I told the government, ‘If people have no jobs, you are in trouble—the government will be in trouble.’ My job is to help more people have jobs.”
Here, with the explicit statement, “I told the government … you are in trouble,” Ma is acknowledging that he is in communication with the government, and suggesting that the communication includes discussions of the ramifications of Alibaba’s strategy. The existence of this implicit relationship raises the question of whether it could in actuality be more explicit in nature. Our analysis of Ma’s behavior in his subsequent exchange with Logan suggests that the relationship is indeed more explicit than Ma had chosen to reveal. In the exchange, Logan asked about Ma’s “connections” this way:
“So usually when people succeed in China, they either have connections—political connections—or they come from a wealthy family. You had neither.”
That Logan phrased it as a negative question enabled Ma to respond with a simple “no.” This momentarily let him off the hook in addressing the connections question, but Logan followed up with this:
“And you've done this without interference from the government?”
Although this was another negative question that might easily have let him off the hook again with a simple “yes,” interestingly, Ma provided the following response:
“Well, I never got one cent from government, I never got one cent from China banks. So I’m very independent.”
This response was extremely revealing, in that it included a very significant cluster of deceptive behaviors:
- Failure to answer the question: Ma never answered the question as to whether he had succeeded in bringing Alibaba to where it is today without interference from the government.
- Behavioral pause: Ma’s response was preceded with a momentary delay.
- Three convincing statements: “I never got one cent from government”; I never got one cent from China banks”; “I’m very independent.”
- Overly specific: The convincing statement, “I never got one cent from China banks” was also overly specific, in that it left open the question of whether he had received funding from Chinese financial interests other than banks.
- Verbal-nonverbal disconnect: When Ma made the affirmative convincing statement, “I’m very independent,” he shook his head from side to side in a negative motion.
This significant cluster of deceptive indicators strongly suggests that Ma’s relationship with the Chinese government is much closer than he is willing to admit. His acknowledgement of an implicit partnership with the government, combined with his highly deceptive behavior in response to the question regarding interference from the government, strongly indicates that he is withholding details regarding the depth of the relationship, and begs the question of its true nature. It also raises the key question of what benefits Ma is receiving in return for helping to keep the Chinese government out of trouble and on a stable course.