Tea Leaf Nation

Meet ‘Crazy Jack,’ China’s E-commerce Titan

Meet ‘Crazy Jack,’ China’s E-commerce Titan

The fizzy anticipation surrounding Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s U.S. listing is a curious blend: equal parts investor giddiness (its initial public offering, or IPO, might be richer than Facebook’s) and tart caution (the company is too secretive, abets piracy and fraud, has iffy corporate governance). This shouldn’t be too surprising. Cross-cultural collisions on this scale tend to breed outlandish hopes and dark fears.   

Enter Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba insider, who has produced and directed his first ‘docu-memoir': Crocodile in the Yangtze: The Alibaba Story. The breezy one hour and 15 minute picture, released globally via video site Vimeo on May 28, isn’t exactly a sobering bucket of ice water on Alibaba fever. But it serves to remind audiences that the e-commerce behemoth from the Far East has humble origins, that it was created in a tiny one-room apartment by, what Erisman calls in the film, a bunch of dreamers led by Jack Ma, or Ma Yun (pictured above), an eccentric former English teacher turned tech entrepreneur who founded Alibaba.

If that synopsis bears echoes of the Apple creation myth — dreamers again, this time in a Silicon Valley garage — it’s meant to. Erisman, an American expat whose decade-long tenure at Alibaba afforded him a front row seat to the company’s dizzying if sometimes rocky rise, set out to make a film that would humanize China’s go-go tech industry and show Westerners the shared DNA that unites entrepreneurs the world over.

Erisman told Foreign Policy via Skype from Tokyo that he sees much Western skepticism toward Chinese companies, which he hoped to temper with an insider’s view of a Chinese startup. "I would hope people in the West would embrace the idea of Chinese Internet companies growing to the scale of their Western counterparts because I think it’s not a zero-sum game," Erisman said. "These green shoots at the grassroots level in China have the same hopes and dreams as entrepreneurs anywhere in the world," he added.

The film explains how Erisman, who hails from Denver, Colorado, first ended up in China in 1994 and quickly found himself hosting a travel show for Chinese state television before eventually being wooed by a web company in the scenic resort city of Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. As he explains in the film, that company, an online business-to-business platform with zero revenue, was called "Alibaba" because the founders hoped that small businesses would use their site to say "open sesame" to global trade.

Erisman’s journey is intercut with footage of Ma, who remains Alibaba’s figurehead today. The film shows Ma from the pre-Alibaba days when he was attempting to launch China Pages, a sort of online yellow pages for the Chinese Internet. That venture failed, but the film also shows Ma gathering 17 friends in his apartment in Hangzhou in February 1999 to lay the foundation for what was to become the biggest e-commerce company in China.  

Ma’s incredible focus and foresight are on display as he lays out his vision for the path ahead, telling his co-founders that they are building a global site to compete not with other Chinese platforms, but with Silicon Valley. He warns them that 8 am to 5 pm workdays won’t cut it, since his goal is to take the company public by 2002. The film then charts the crazy ride from that day up to subsidiary Alibaba.com‘s Hong Kong stock exchange listing in November 2007. Meanwhile, the group’s consumer retail site Taobao improbably manages to beat out deep-pocketed eBay for Chinese market share along the way. (The film’s title comes from a famous Ma quip that described eBay as a shark in the ocean and Alibaba as a "crocodile in the Yangtze River.") Erisman’s picture shows shy-looking computer nerds belting out karaoke at company parties, and employees crying tears of joy when the company finally begins to make revenue.

There are also crises to be managed, including a staff quarantine when a coworker gets SARS, a viral respiratory illness that led to international panic, in May 2004. It also depicts the fallout from Alibaba’s partnership with Yahoo right around the time that the U.S. search company was revealed to have handed over the personal emails of journalists and activists to the Chinese government. Based on evidence delivered by Yahoo, the writer Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in jail for leaking state secrets; he was released in August 2013, 15 months short of serving the full term. The media held Ma’s feet to the fire on this issue, but he has argued that Yahoo had no choice but to comply with local Chinese laws.

Erisman said he had tried to get his film shown by a Chinese broadcaster, but the deal fell through because he refused to delete some of the film’s political content — he declined to specify which scenes they wanted cut — so there is no immediate plan for a China release. Its current incarnation also can’t be viewed in China, as Vimeo is blocked there.

The film might be too hot for Chinese censors, but it is far from a takedown of Alibaba, and it can’t fairly be called objective. It was, after all, produced and directed by an Alibaba shareholder who clearly still has affection for his former employer and colleagues. The film doesn’t wade into a string of fraud cases that led to the resignation of two senior executives in February 2011, which to be fair, occurred after Erisman’s exit. Nor does it touch Alibaba’s persistent problems with pirated or counterfeit goods sold via its platform. (Craig Crosby, publisher of the Counterfeit Report, an online piracy alert site, was quoted by the Associated Press in a May 27 report saying that the cash from Alibaba’s IPO would "open the floodgates on counterfeits.")

The picture also rarely shows Ma with his guard down. Erisman said he worried that he might upset Ma if he revealed too much personal information (Ma’s wife and kids are never mentioned), but the person whom many call "Crazy Jack" might have preferred a more unvarnished take. Ma allowed Erisman access to the company’s video and photo archives, but didn’t see the film until 2012. Erisman said Ma’s favorite part was a section Erisman debated including: the details of a distraught phone call after a tough round of layoffs when Ma asked Erisman if he thought Ma was a good person. 

Erisman admitted he wasn’t sure how Ma would react, but said his former boss found it the best part of the film. "Maybe he appreciated that I captured that moment, the difficult part of being an en
trepreneur that people don’t normally see," Erisman said.

From the film, it’s clear that Ma lives his work. Erisman says the Alibaba founders still get together on weekends to "play cards and drink tea." When asked whether enormous wealth and success had changed Ma, Erisman said it seems to have mainly boosted Ma’s confidence as a manager. But, he added, Ma has never seen himself as a businessman. Instead he thinks of himself as an artist who is creating something for society. "He views work as an expression of yourself," Erisman said.

That observation was a re-phrasing of a coda at the end of Crocodile, where Erisman sums up why working at Alibaba had been so important to him and why he felt it was worthy of a film. "In a country where speech still has limits, my colleagues found self-expression in the form of a company," Erisman says in a voice over. "I felt if the rest of the world had seen the China I’d seen, maybe fear of China’s rise would be replaced with optimism and hope."