Jack Ma has built e-commerce firm Alibaba into a behemoth. While meeting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Vinitaly show in Verona in April, Jack Ma announced the launch of an annual 9 September Wine Festival Day. On that day, 100,000 wine and spirits were offered online in China. Wine exporters can now sell directly to consumers in China. More effectively than trade negotiators, Jack Ma opens the Chinese market to foreign producers.
While the media were still resonating of the discussions over China’s market economy status, ChinaEU found it appropriate to illustrate the brighter side of the Chinese-European trade relationship, by hosting two events on global e-commerce.
The first event was a dinner held on October 19th at the European Parliament. Several MEPs participated as well as high level officials from the Chinese government and the European Commission. Addressing the sixty participants of the ChinaEU dinner, Luigi Gambardella, President of ChinaEU, explained the success of e-commerce from experience: “When I connect to Alibaba – Aliexpress as it is branded in the EU – Alibaba reminds me what I was recently looking for and makes me suggestions. When I consult an offer, Alibaba tells me with what other products other visitors compared the product concerned. Alibaba is saving me precious time, which I can dedicate to more productive aims.”
《阿里巴巴：马云的商业帝国》作者、北京博达克咨询有限公司总裁 Duncan Clark在晚宴上发言（摄影：宫铁刚）
The author of the book “Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built”, Duncan Clark, then took the floor to summarize the ups and downs of Jack Ma from his early beginnings as English language teacher until his eventual success in building a company which today surpassed Amazon and Walmart to become the world’s largest retailer, with 3 trillion yuan (USD 475.89 bn) in total gross merchandize volume. The saga of Jack Ma, said Duncan Clark, shows the incredibly fast pace of change and innovation that China is experiencing, and describes the fierce competition among the different business players, at levels that we rarely see in Europe.
《阿里巴巴：马云的商业帝国》一书的作者Duncan Clark在接下来的讲话中总结了马云创业史的起起伏伏，从最开始的英语老师到最终成功创建商品交易总额高达三万亿人民币（4758.9 亿美元）的商业帝国，一跃超过亚马逊和沃尔玛成为世界最大零售商。Duncan Clark强调，马云的传奇恰恰展示了中国正在经历的这种超快速的变革与创新阶段，而各商业对手间如此激烈的竞争也是我们在欧洲极少看到的。
It is clear that e-commerce is broader than storing and moving goods from one geographic location to another. The success of e-commerce platforms comes from their ability to exploit big data: the billions of information that they collect about the product comparison and shopping preferences of visitors and buyers.
欧委会竞争总司首席经济学家Tommaso Valletti在晚宴上发言 (摄影：宫铁刚)
But data collection entails a lot of legal questions, that the EU Commission is currently examining. Should for example platforms be mandated to share their big data with potential entrants and niche players? Tommaso Valletti, Chief Economist of DG Competition advising Commissioner Vestager on complex competition cases, implicitly touched upon the issue, calling online platforms such as Google, Facebook or Alibaba to maintain their services open. Ironically, he recalled the greedy brother of Ali Baba from the famous children story. Once entered the treasure cave, he forgot the magic word to get out and got trapped there. “Google, Facebook and Alibaba are all great caves, but they should not trap their users inside”, he warned.
但数据的收集涉及众多法律问题，这也是欧委会目前正在仔细审查的重点之一。举例来说，是否应该强制在线平台将其数据与潜在竞争者和利基市场参与者分享？欧委会竞争总司首席经济学家Tommaso Valletti专长于为欧委会竞争委员Vestager针对复杂的竞争案例提供建议，他在晚宴发言中含蓄地提到了该问题，并倡议像谷歌、脸书或阿里巴巴这样的在线平台继续维持其服务的开放性。他继而引用了著名儿童故事《阿里巴巴和四十大盗》里阿里巴巴贪婪的哥哥作为讽刺案例，对金钱的贪欲使他忘记了开门咒语而被困在堆满宝物的山洞里。“谷歌、脸书和阿里巴巴都是价值连城的山洞，但他们不应该将他们的用户困在里面”，Valletti 警告道。
欧委会数字经济与社会委员Günther Oettinger内阁成员Thibaut Kleiner在晚宴上发言 （摄影：姚悦洋）
Collection and management of consumers’ data is not the only concern for companies like Alibaba. Thibaut Kleiner, Deputy Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Oettinger, underlined the huge potentials of the business and political cooperation between China and Europe in the digital industries and the benefits that could result for both European and Chinese consumers. On the other hand, he reminded the need to ensure protection of trademarks. In the past, Alibaba has not been immune of accusations by the private and public sectors alike over counterfeit products distributed on its platforms, not only in the EU and the US but also in China.
But e-commerce is before all a means to boost growth, jobs and innovation. Zhang Lirong, Minister of the Chinese Mission to the EU, recalled that reinvigorating the economy through mobile Internet, cloud computing and big data tops China’s new agenda for economic growth. Innovation, quality, digitalization and green development are the four principles standing at the core of “Made in China 2025”, the guide to transform the country into a global leader in modern manufacturing.
The second event took place the following morning at the Press Club of Brussels. The important attendance of Chinese and international journalists, academics and representatives of the industry showed the great interest for the Chinese e-commerce giant and its role for Sino-European trade.
中欧数字协会主任韦茉莉在记者俱乐部为辩论会开场 (摄影：Emy De Nardi)
Claudia Vernotti, director of ChinaEU introduced the session by reminding that in the West, people are still looking too much at Chinese innovations from a Western perspective and stressed that the advantage of Duncan Clark’s book is that it is written by someone knowing Chinese society from the inside, going beyond simplistic yet popular definitions like, Baidu is the Chinese version of Google, Wechat is China’s response to WhatsApp, or Alibaba is the Amazon of China.
中欧数字协会主任Claudia Vernotti在开场讲话中特别提醒到，在西方人们还是习惯用西方的眼光审视中国的创新发展，而Duncan Clark这本书的优势则在于作者是一个谙熟中国社会并从中国内部进行观察的欧洲人。对他而言，百度不单纯是中国版的谷歌、微信也不仅是中国对WhatsApp的回应，而阿里巴巴更不能被简单地视为中国亚马逊。但上述这些恰恰是西方对中国创新应用浅显却被广泛接受的认知。
《阿里巴巴：马云的商业帝国》作者、北京博达克咨询有限公司总裁Duncan Clark在辩论会上发言 (摄影：记者俱乐部)
Duncan Clark elaborated that one has to look at Chinese companies as they are, not by always comparing them to Western companies. For example, WeChat, despite resembling WhatsApp in many aspects, is a different animal. WeChat contains more innovative functions, which have revolutionized the way people communicate, work, travel, and even purchase things and services.
欧委会通信网络内容与技术总司电子商务&在线平台部门成员Jasmin Battista在辩论会上发言 （摄影: 记者俱乐部）
Does the EU promote EU Internet companies that would be able to compete with the Chinese and US giants? According to Jasmin Battista, former member of Cabinet of VP Ansip and now in charge of online platforms and e-commerce policy in DG Connect, Europe needs first of all size. “DSM is a priority for President Juncker and we take the plan very seriously. Today Europe is fragmented into 28 digital markets, but Internet has no boundaries. DSM consists of a set of 16 initiatives that will allow better access for consumers and business to online goods and services across Europe. We will remove the key differences between online and offline worlds, and break down barriers to cross-border online activity.”
而欧盟是否应该为欧洲的互联网企业提供帮助，支持其与中美互联网巨头抗衡竞争呢？欧委会副主席Andrus Ansip前内阁成员、现欧委会通信网络内容与技术总司电子商务&在线平台部门成员Jasmin Battista表示，欧洲急需的是一个形成规模的市场。“欧盟数字单一市场对于欧委会主席容克来说是绝对的优先发展项，而我们也对该计划持严谨而认真的态度。当今的欧洲被分割成28个碎片化的数字市场，但互联网本身是没有国界的。欧盟数字单一市场包含16项倡议，以期为消费者和企业接触全欧洲范围内的在线商品和服务提供便利和自由。我们将消除线上和线下世界最主要的区别，并打破阻碍跨境网络活动的一系列壁垒。”
But was Alibaba’s success only due to the size of the Chinese market? Digging deeper into the “secret of Alibaba’s success”, Vernotti pointed to another factor of Jack Ma’s success: “resilience”. She cited Jack Ma’s motivational motto: “Today is brutal. Tomorrow is more brutal. But the day after tomorrow is beautiful. However, the majority of people will die tomorrow night”. She said: “Many people do not persevere because they get disappointed by failures and demotivated by the difficulties encountered on the way. Jack Ma failed twice in his attempts to build something great and meaningful, but he persevered until getting to see that bright ‘day after tomorrow’.”
Chen Laiji, Professor of Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication of Li Ka-Shing’s backed University of Shantou confirmed that one of the secrets is: “China’s entrepreneurship success lies in the hard working attitude of its people. This is something taught in China’s education system and is linked to our culture of Confucianism.” Professor Chen studied in particular China’s on-line gaming industry, a market of over USD 22.2bn, and representation of China’s ongoing evolution from a low-end manufacturing based economy to a service-based economy.
阿里巴巴集团国际政府事务负责人Eric Pelletier在回答现场观众提问 （摄影：记者俱乐部）
A discussion on the contribution of Alibaba to global trade without any representative of the Chinese company would have left the room with a sense of incompleteness. Eric Pelletier, Head of International Affairs of Alibaba, took questions from the audience and gave some hints on the future direction of the company and its strategy in Europe: “Alibaba’s future is focused on three main drivers: big data, ‘go rural’ and ‘go abroad’. Europe in particular is a priority market for Alibaba, who wants to position itself as a gateway for European SMEs to China”. Alibaba is increasing its presence in Europe, setting up offices in UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and more recently in Belgium, with the mission to bring European companies, and especially small and medium enterprises, to the fast-growing consumer market in China.
Home to over 700 million netizens, China is today the largest Internet market in the world and has just recently surpassed the US to become also the number one e-commerce marketplace, with online transactions totaling 16.4 trillion RMB (2.19 trillion EURO). China’s rapidly expanding middle class, now as big as the whole population of the US, increasingly demands high quality products, and an estimated 461 million Chinese consumers, a third of the population, are now shopping online. This means huge opportunities for European brands, a guarantee of quality worldwide, to tap into the Chinese market.
E-commerce is thus a particularly promising sector in the bilateral cooperation agenda. It is far away from sensitive political issues, but has great potential to boost trade volumes, investment levels and mutual trust in the respective digital economies.
A short video features ChinaEU’s second event: The secret of Alibaba’s success — A Talk with Duncan Clark is available here.
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