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Photo Credit: (VCG)

How Hangzhou Helped Jack Ma Build a Digital Empire

Hangzhou has birthed some of China's biggest tech companies

The rags-to-riches story of Ma Yun (马云), or Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, might not have happened if he had been born elsewhere: “Hangzhou is the Eden of Alibaba,” the legendary entrepreneur once wrote, “Without Hangzhou, there is no Alibaba.”

Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang province, has become synonymous with Ma’s tech kingdom. It has served as a hub for China’s digital sector, and ridden the wave of innovation to become one of the country’s wealthiest cities. Hangzhou is now home to a host of technology companies that have followed Alibaba’s lead, including internet and gaming company NetEase, and Hikvision, the world’s largest supplier of surveillance cameras.

In 2018, Hangzhou’s municipal government unveiled a five-year plan to make the city the hub of the nation’s digital industry. The digital economy now accounts for over a quarter of Hangzhou’s GDP.

Hangzhou’s continued prosperity (the city saw 6.8 percent annual GDP growth in 2019) owes much to the house that Jack Ma built: Alibaba’s headquarters remain in the city. The sprawling campus, nestled amid the Xixi wetlands (西溪湿地) region of Hangzhou, employs some 22,000 people and makes up the central nervous system of Ma’s e-commerce empire.

Ma’s own story continues to inspire countless of his fellow Zhejiang natives to embrace entrepreneurship, no matter where they start from. Born on September 10, 1964, to musician and folk storyteller parents, the young Ma began offering tours of Hangzhou to foreign visitors at age 13. For nine years, he would walk up the mossy paths to the Hangzhou Hotel—now the Shangri-La—and learn English in exchange for showing guests around this fairytale city.

After graduating from college with an English degree, as the now well-weathered Jack Ma legend goes, he was rejected for over 30 jobs, including one at Hangzhou’s first KFCs. In 1999, he launched Alibaba with 17 friends in his sparse Hangzhou flat. No one in the world could have known it then, but they were living and creating a new Hangzhou legend.

By 2014, as the company was about to take its IPO on the New York Stock Exchange and go supernova as NYSE: BABA, they had nearly 100 million users in over 20 countries with global online transactions exceeding one trillion RMB. Shattering all investment records with its IPO of 25 billion USD in September that year, the company continued to move at a mercurial pace—perhaps one of the fastest in the world, with ventures into entertainment, cinema, sports, and beyond.

In 2019, Alibaba saw revenue of over 70 billion USD and, despite the impact of Covid-19, the future looks bright for the company as it continues to expand into cloud computing, AI, fintech and more. Ma, who stepped down as company chairman in 2020 to pursue philanthropic projects, wants Alibaba to last until the year 2101, so that he can say that his legacy has spanned three centuries.

But Ma and the company he built are unlikely to forget their Hangzhou roots. As Ma says, “It’s the city that made Alibaba.”

Cover image from VCG

Excerpt taken from Rolling with Zhejiang, TWOC’s new booklet on tourism and language in Zhejiang province available in English, French, German, Russian, Korean, and Japanese. Get your digital copy today from our WeChat Store or iTunes Store!


author Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the managing editor at The World of Chinese. He writes mainly about Chinese society, especially life outside the biggest cities. His pieces touching on diverse topics from the future of China’s ski industry to efforts to prevent juvenile crime.

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