The billionaire urged the company he co-founded decades ago to take a page from hard-charging rival PDD Holdings Inc. in a surprise internal memo, in which the entrepreneur called on the tech giant to embark on fundamental change. Ma, who has mostly stayed away from day-to-day operations since 2020, stunned employees Wednesday by replying to a staff post on Alibaba’s internal forum, according to people familiar with the matter. In his brief message, the entrepreneur praised PDD’s decisions in past years that led to its rise as a fast-growing challenger to Alibaba’s market dominance. Ma’s remarks come as Alibaba, the biggest e-commerce company in China grapples with a weaker-than-anticipated economic recovery and up-and-coming rivals such as PDD that threaten its once-dominant e-commerce business. The company has been in turmoil this year, starting with plans to break the corporation into six smaller businesses and culminating in the departure of Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang. In his place, the company brought in Joseph Tsai and Eddie Wu, longstanding Ma confidantes tasked with running the company.
Ma’s message comes at a time when public ponderings by wealthy entrepreneurs about capitalism’s future are rising in prominence. In addition, the world’s wealthiest individuals are rethinking their approaches to wealth and power in light of President Xi Jinping’s avowed push toward “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
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At 55, Ma’s decision to step down as the executive chairman of Alibaba at such a young age is especially remarkable, particularly in China, where company founders often work well into their 70s before handing over control to children or other management. Ma has said he wants to focus on his foundation and philanthropy after leaving the company, and he’s already taken steps to do so.
This week, he put plans to list his Freshippo grocery chain in Hong Kong and the $11 billion cloud division he heads on hold. He also announced he would relinquish his dual chairman and CEO roles, giving the two duties to Zhang and another Ma confidant, Joseph Tsai.
In an office building in Hangzhou with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a lake and Chinese elm trees, Ma’s headquarters is a tranquil space with clean lines, natural timbers, and modern art. He is seated in the Peach Blossom room, named after a setting in his favorite martial arts novel designed to feel more Japanese than Chinese.
He looks tired, and his body language conveys that he has reached the end of his entrepreneurship arc and is eager to move on. But he’s not quite ready to leave the juggernaut that built his legacy. He still has much to do, both inside and outside of Alibaba. His newfound restlessness underscores a profound shift in the zeitgeist driven by the world’s most populous population, shifting tastes, and the rise of online competition. It’s a moment in which the concept of what it means to make money has been turned on its head.