Oct 17, 2018 08:38 AM

China’s Homegrown Bill Gates, Elon Musk Lurk Behind Giants Like Alibaba, Xiaomi

With two of China’s biggest high-tech personalities in the headlines these last few weeks, I thought I’d take a closer look at who these people are this week and try to find some Western equivalents to make them more understandable to foreign readers. The topic seems to take on extra significance this week with the passing of Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975 and is arguably one of the best recognized high-tech figures for many Westerners.

Allen died on Oct. 15 after a years-long battle with cancer. He was probably known as the wonkier, less visible side of Microsoft, alongside the higher-profile Gates. A similar pair was at the center of Apple, in the form of the brash and outspoken Steve Jobs alongside the quieter and wonky Steve Wozniak.

That leads into my main focus for this week, namely on China’s own colorful cast of high-tech personalities, and what they are like. To too many Westerns, Jack Ma is simply a name that gets attached to e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., while Richard Liu is part of the package for rival Inc. But what are these two very different men, who have both been in headlines these past few weeks, really like?

China tech followers will know that Liu, known as Liu Qiangdong to most Chinese, was in less-than-flattering headlines last month after being accused of rape while attending a training program in the U.S. Ma, known locally as Ma Yun, was in more carefully-staged headlines when he announced his plan to retire from a company that has grown from modest roots in a Hangzhou apartment to one of the world’s largest internet firms.

Ma, Liu and a number of other internet personalities are household words here in China, much the way that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and founder Jeff Bezos enjoy similar status in the West. Some of the other names that enjoy similar status here include Pony Ma, founder of social networking and gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd.; Robin Li, founder of dominant search engine Baidu Inc.; and Lei Jun, co-founder of recently-listed smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp.

In search of Western equivalents for these Chinese tech titans, I polled some of my techie friends and have added my own observations from years of following these men and their companies. I hope the results will be a brief but insightful look at what makes these men tick, which perhaps can give investors and tech-watchers some insight into the future of the empires each has built.

Jack Ma, salesman supreme

We’ll begin with Jack Ma, who is arguably China’s most recognizable high-tech titan, and for good reason. Ma is someone who craves the spotlight, and it helps that he speaks pretty good English due to his early career as an English teacher. I may be dating myself with the comparison I’m about to make, but one of Ma’s closest Western equivalents I could think of came in the form of Steve Case, the marketing genius behind early internet sensation AOL.

For anyone who can remember the heady days of the 1990s, Case was the marketing genius who took AOL briefly to the top of the internet world at that time, culminating with its 2000 merger with the far more established Time Warner. Like the Case of that era, Ma possesses a similarly boundless energy and willingness to talk with anyone who will listen about the wonders of e-commerce and its ability to build bridges, empower businesses and just about everything else but unclog the kitchen sink.

Two of my other contacts mentioned Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos as Ma’s Western equivalents, the former for his vision and wonkiness, and the latter for his pioneering role in e-commerce. Both points are valid, though neither captures the fact that Jack Ma is first and foremost a salesman, and only a techie far after that.

Next let’s jump to Pony Ma, no puns intended, who is probably the least understood of China’s high-tech titans despite being the brains behind the nation’s second largest internet company. That’s in no small part because Pony, known to Chinese as Ma Huateng, is incredibly shy and awkward, and would probably be far happier anonymously playing games on his company’s hugely popular WeChat instant messaging platform than speaking to Wall Street investors.

For all those reasons I’m likening Pony Ma, no relation to Jack, to the previously mentioned Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Another equivalent could be Apple’s current chief Tim Cook, who seems almost as uncomfortable in the spotlight even though he tries very hard, no doubt following far more media coaching sessions than Pony Ma ever received.

As to founder Richard Liu, two good comparisons could be found in Uber founder Travis Kalanick and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Both of those are quite brash and outspoken, and each exudes the same kind of self-confidence that Liu also possesses. Liu’s biggest difference is his roots from a poor, agricultural background, a relatively common phenomenon in China, which gives him a certain “country boy” quality that you don’t often see in such high-tech celebrities.

I’ll close out with Lei Jun and Robin Li, the latter of whom was one of the hardest to pair with a Western equivalent. Xiaomi’s Lei likes to be compared to Steve Jobs, for the obvious reasons of Jobs’ cult-like status in Western tech circles. But Lei really shares very little with his Western idol, and instead is probably closer to Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang or perhaps SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Both Yang and Musk are among the more likeable figures in the Western high-tech lexicon, and Yang in particular seemed to share Lei’s modesty and broader desire for public recognition.

Last but not least there’s Li, known locally as Li Yanhong, who often seems relegated to status as China’s one-trick-pony for his early success in online search but not much else. Li is also known for his style and looks, and is the closest thing China has to an internet “pretty boy.” My attempts to find a Western high-tech equivalent for such a person came up empty, leaving me to ultimately settle on British entrepreneur and bon vivant Richard Branson, king of the Virgin Group empire, as perhaps a good though not really complete equivalent.

As one of my contacts pointed out, each of these Chinese personalities is really a unique individual, and I’m sure many will find fault with my selection of Western equivalents. But at the very least I hope my comparisons can help to humanize for Westerners these larger-than-life figures in China’s high-tech realm, and in the process add depth and dimension to their understanding of the empires they built.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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