Does being a founder and executive chairman of a company worth about $400bn (£313bn), with a personal wealth said to be about $35bn, put you at odds with being a member of a communist party whose leader wants to “develop China, develop socialism and develop Marxism”?
Or, put more simply, why is Jack Ma a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC)?
He’s been officially outed by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling party.
We don’t know how long he’s been a member for, but we do now know that he is one of approximately 88 million people who (are supposed to) pay monthly dues, attend regular meetings and sometimes submit themselves to “self criticism” to improve their ideological understanding.
Jack Ma is a strident defender of the way President Xi Jinping does business when it comes to foreign firms – and American presidents – who complain about getting access to markets in China.
This time last year, at an internet conference here, he told me, referring to companies like Facebook, “if they come here they have to say OK, I follow the Chinese rules and laws”.
He preceded that reply by saying: “I’m not in government, I cannot speak on behalf of the government.”
Some might say the revelation is a bear-in-the-woods moment; utterly unsurprising.
To get ahead in China some might say you need to be in with the Communists; the leaders, the bureaucrats, the officials. (Especially if you want to harness the power of the newish, as it was back in 1999, internet to create the world’s biggest online retailer in a country that controls the internet.)
The Chinese call it Guan Xi. It means connections.
Along the way Jack Ma helped create a behemoth that is a marvel. An example of China’s economic prowess and innovation. But his company Alibaba has also agreed to share information about its customers if the authorities come calling; following the “Chinese rules and laws” he was telling me about last year.
It might be that Ma Yun, to use his proper Chinese name, joined because he believes that the China model works. The one that’s made his country into an economic powerhouse, whilst ensuring the 100 or so mammoth state-run entities remained central to government control of the economy and the ruling CPC stayed in power.
It’s probably a little late to pose this final question, because Jack Ma is due to step down from his role as executive chairman at Alibaba next year, but nonetheless the revelation of his party membership raises this intriguing point; CPC members are expected, in fact demanded, to give primacy to the Party over anything else.
Alibaba has denied that its superstar boss ever put the CPC above the company – or indeed its NYSE-listed shareholders – when it came to big decisions. It’s likely a moot point now, but others have noted that Jack Ma’s CPC affiliation wasn’t mentioned in Alibaba’s share flotation brochure in 2014.