Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Inside the Chinese Digital Giant That Is Changing the World

by Brian A. Wong

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-5417-0165-6
Publisher: PublicAffairs

A key Alibaba executive looks at the culture that has underpinned the company’s growth—and what it means for the world.

Wong has held a number of senior positions at Alibaba, including as founder Jack Ma’s special assistant for international affairs. Because he joined the company in its early days (he was the 52nd employee and first American), he is well positioned to track the company’s development and explain the culture expansion. The book has the feel of an official corporate history, and anyone who is looking for critical analysis or an account of Alibaba’s ethically dubious cooperation with China’s authoritarian rulers will not find it here. That said, Wong has plenty to discuss. His initial emphasis is on the company’s priorities: customers first, employees second, shareholders third. This might sound like anathema to American businesses but it has worked well, and shareholders have received good returns. Wong points out that 20 years ago China had thousands of dynamic small companies which had no way to reach customers. Alibaba provided the portal to link sellers and buyers in a digital mall. Unlike Amazon, it did not have to carry huge inventory loads, but the key problem was payment. Credit cards were rare in China, so the answer was to jump to cellphones as primary payment mechanisms. Alibaba overcame the trust issue with its own payment arm, Alipay. Wong emphasizes that Alibaba has eschewed detailed planning in favor of responding to problems as they arise. Ma, when he was CEO, had an eye for good tech people although he also recruited people who showed capacities for innovation and customer relations rather than programming skills. The company gives division, branch, and team leaders wide discretion in decisions, which was especially valuable when Alibaba started global expansion and had to learn new cultural environments. The book might have been given more depth by a considered examination of some of the company’s failures but nevertheless The Tao of Alibaba presents a different way of looking at business as well as telling the story of a company that has become a key part of the world economy.

A well-organized, well-written account of how Alibaba grew from a tiny startup to a corporate giant.