By Blake Schmidt and Venus Feng
(Bloomberg) -- Jack Ma’s influence in the world has gotten bigger since he stepped down as chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
China’s richest person is now playing a prominent role in philanthropic efforts that are effectively helping President Xi Jinping improve the country’s image overseas after Covid-19 spread around the world, unleashing a devastating human and economic toll. That’s a stark turn from just 18 months earlier, when Ma had to publicly dispute speculation that the government had prompted him to step down from the e-commerce giant he founded.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Saturday became one of the latest to thank Ma, as well as Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai and the Chinese government, for the delivery of 1,000 ventilators to the state. Asked about the donation, President Donald Trump -- who had earlier blamed Beijing for failing to provide enough information about what he had called the “Chinese virus” -- said Ma was “a friend of mine” and “we appreciate it very much.”
We finally got some good news today.
The Chinese government helped facilitate a donation of 1,000 ventilators that will arrive in JFK today.
I thank the Chinese government, Jack Ma, Joe Tsai, the Jack Ma Foundation, the Tsai Foundation and Consul General Huang.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) April 4, 2020
Ma has now donated at least 18 million masks, testing kits and other supplies to more than 100 countries worldwide, from Africa and Europe to the U.S. and Russia. The donations have helped build goodwill for China’s government, whose official offers of assistance have been met with more suspicion.
While wealthy Westerners such as Bill Gates regularly conduct large-scale philanthropic efforts and win praise from politicians, in China it’s a relatively new phenomenon. The Communist Party has an uneasy relationship with billionaires, viewing them as both a necessary evil of private sector-led growth needed to boost incomes and a potential threat if they become too powerful.
“For a long time China has relied on official propaganda and massive investment overseas as major instruments for promoting its soft power,” said Zhiqun Zhu, chair of the department of international relations at Bucknell University who was written and edited books on China’s foreign policy. “Billionaire philanthropy is a new approach. Of course, for businesses, it is also a public relations opportunity.”
Ma declined a request for an interview sent to the press office of Alibaba, which also declined to comment to emailed questions. The billionaire joined Twitter on March 16, just as tensions were rising between the U.S. and China over who was to blame for the virus as Beijing faced criticism for muzzling doctors who called early attention to the mysterious disease. In his first tweets, he began promoting his foundation’s shipments of aid, posting “all the best to our friends in America” with an emoji of praying hands.
Ma has since repeatedly called for the world to unite in the fight against the virus, using the phrase “One world, one fight!” and “Together, we can do this!” In a Weibo post on April 1, Ma denounced “online rumors” that his foundation’s donations were rejected by some recipients and defended the quality of its medical supplies. “Charity is not for praise or acknowledgement, and we are not afraid of criticism or accusations,” he wrote.
Knowledge is power! We launched an online platform for doctors and nurses around the world to exchange ideas, lessons and know-how to fight the virus. We welcome all hospitals to join Chinese hospitals on this open platform https://t.co/WfQEbdmgym. One world, one fight!
— Jack Ma (@JackMa) March 26, 2020
Other Chinese tech giants also showed their philanthropy. Xiaomi Corp., co-founded by Lei Jun, pledged coronavirus relief for India, where the communications-equipment maker generates lots of revenue. The Globe and Mail reported that Huawei Technologies Co., founded by billionaire Ren Zhengfei, sent more than 1 million masks to Canada, where his daughter -- Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou -- has been fighting extradition to the U.S. since her arrest in 2018. She has denied wrongdoing.
Xiaomi said it has donated medical supplies to 15 countries and emphasizes its activities in India because it wants to spur more donations there. In an email, Huawei said “it will do what it can” to donate to governments and communities after taking care of its employees, and said that those decisions have “no link to executives’ personal choices.”
“Prominent Chinese entrepreneurs would not make these gestures without permission from the Communist Party,” said Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor emeritus who introduced the concept of soft power in the 1980s. “China has used a government-sponsored propaganda campaign and aid programs to promote the theme that China’s behavior had been benign, and to restore its soft power.”
China’s foreign ministry has promoted Ma’s donation of face masks, testing kits and other materials in Africa: In South Sudan, the Chinese ambassador last month posed in photos with local officials and thanked Xi for his painstaking efforts to control he outbreak. State-run media organizations have also prominently covered the donations, particularly those by Ma.
“We appreciate the kind donation made by Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation, which vividly illustrates the friendly sentiments of the Chinese people toward the African people,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a March 23 press briefing in Beijing. He added that China would “continue to coordinate and encourage Chinese enterprises and private institutions to actively provide support to African countries.”
During his time at Alibaba, Ma regularly met with heads of state, including in 2016 at the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou -- the city near Shanghai where Alibaba is based and Xi once served as party secretary of Zhejiang province. After Trump’s election in 2016, Ma promised to create a million jobs in the U.S. by linking small businesses with Chinese online buyers.
Ma, a member of the Communist Party, has also been a vocal backer of Xi’s policies in recent years. In 2016, Ma proposed that the nation’s top security bureau use big data to prevent crime, endorsing the government’s effort to build unparalleled online surveillance of the world’s most-populous nation. He has also said China benefits from the stability of its one-party system and spoke out in favor of the country’s strict online censorship.
In a speech at Alibaba headquarters in September 2018, Ma denied that he was pushed aside.
“I got rumors from outside China saying ‘It’s because the government wants to push you down.’ Nobody can.” He said he’d been planning his exit for a decade, and wanted to lead the way for Chinese entrepreneurs in passing on a major company to professionals, rather than creating another family dynasty.
“Fly too close to the sun, your wings melt,” said Duncan Clark, author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built,” which was translated into about 30 languages. “He has to set the right altitude to beat his competitors, stay ahead, but not incur the wrath of the government. He’s just so much better at soft power than the government, in part because in this case he isn’t tied up with the whole ‘original sin’ question about the origins of the virus.”
While the U.S. and China have sparred throughout the crisis, some European politicians have also been critical of China -- particularly over test kits they found to be inaccurate. The European Union’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, warned in a blog post last month that a geopolitical “struggle for influence” is hidden behind the “politics of generosity.”
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, denied on Twitter that China engages in “mask propaganda,” saying that the donations are to “reciprocate kindness and help others to the best of our ability.”
China is practicing "mask propaganda"? Do those badmouthing China rather want us to stand by & turn blind to others' suffering? This is all we do: reciprocate kindness and help others to the best of our ability.
— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) March 30, 2020
David Shambaugh, who once worked at the U.S. National Security Council and is now a professor at George Washington University heading the China Policy Program, said “the more masks the better -- it doesn’t matter where they come from.”
Still, Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, said the philanthropy from China’s billionaires is accompanied by a “highly orchestrated propaganda operation.” While it’s hard to know what really motivates billionaires like Ma, he said, it can’t be separated from other reasons like “supporting China’s foreign policy and currying favor with the party and Xi.”
“Most people in most democracies do not know much about China, or of what their own governments and philanthropists had done in terms of offering medical supplies to China previously,” Tsang said. “And so many will be impressed by the apparent generosity.”
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.