China, alibaba and the spirit of Jack Ma

All the news this week is about the alibaba IPO and Jack Ma. Jack Ma is the kind of person I met often when I first lived in China in the early 1990s, someone who saw China’s future not as an isolated nation at odds with the West but as a global power whose large, skilled workforce would give it a huge advantage over other countries where manufacturing had traditionally taken place. But Ma understood clearly that he needed to master English if he wanted to take advantage of the vast opportunities that Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms had presented to him and to others. And that is what he did. Largely self-taught Ma would make special trips to hotels in Hangzhou to practice his English with foreigners while he was a student in Hangzhou. He eventually learned English well enough that he became a teacher and opened his own school, a hint of the entrepreneurial spirit that lay within

When I read about how Jack Ma learned English in China 40 years ago I think back to my own experience in Shanghai 25 years ago when complete strangers would go out of their way to speak English with me. I remember vividly one time sitting by myself at a KFC on a Sunday evening poking at my mashed potatoes as a kid of about 10 came up to me and started to speak to me in almost flawless English. His English was so good I did not mind the intrusion. I knew I was in the presence of a child prodigy and I found it fascinating. After talking to him for five minutes his father came over and explained to me how he would bring his son to KFC every Sunday from the countryside so he could practice his English, a journey that must have taken 3-4 hours. It was irritating as heck when people came up to you and just started talking to you out of the blue. But at the same time you had to admire it. And if you want to understand how China has come so far in the past 30 years, from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest, look no further than the spirit of Jack Ma.

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