Alibaba CEO defends company’s $15.5 billion donation to China’s ‘common prosperity’ drive

October 19, 2021, 6:15 AM UTC

On Sept. 3, Alibaba announced that it would spend $15.5 billion to support China’s drive toward “common prosperity,” the term used by Chinese President Xi Jinping to describe his plan to tackle the country’s income inequality.

Other tech giants also promised billions to signal support for Xi’s new economic directives and cast the companies in a positive light as they countered another Xi initiative—Beijing’s crackdown on consumer internet firms.

But Alibaba’s pledge stood out for its sheer size—equal to almost three-quarters of the e-commerce company’s net income in 2020—and for its timing: It came months after Beijing fined Alibaba a record $2.8 billion for its alleged monopolistic practices. Alibaba’s announcement included 10 broad areas of focus but provided few details at the time.

So where, exactly, will all that money go? And does Alibaba see the efforts as helping its bottom line?

Daniel Zhang, CEO of the Alibaba Group, fielded those questions in a wide-ranging conversation with Fortune in advance of the Fortune Global 500 Summit in Hangzhou, China, but responded with few specifics.

Zhang assumed a humbler tone when discussing his company’s future in mid-October. He identified several potential targets for Alibaba’s donated billions, from helping small and medium-size enterprises find more market opportunities overseas to assisting low-income areas grow their business to fostering a healthier population. Such initiatives will boost common prosperity and the company’s future business, Zhang said.

Some investors and economists don’t see it that way. They argue that China’s efforts to transform its economy will increase regulatory pressures on tech companies, constraining their profits and discouraging innovation. At their most bearish, analysts see China’s recent regulations as cover for increasing state control that may make the country uninvestable. Some Chinese officials have downplayed such concerns, saying that the campaign is not meant to “rob the rich.”

Alibaba’s investors, in particular, are worried that the company’s common prosperity pledge will dent its bottom line, hitting future earnings without any guarantee of avoiding future regulations. The company’s shares sank by almost 4% the day the company announced its donation.

Zhang argues that a greater focus on “social responsibility” may end up helping Alibaba in the long term. “If people have more consumption capabilities, if people have more business opportunities…then we will get our opportunities,” Zhang said. “We have to work with all the stakeholders to create a better life, a better economy.” 

The fallout of Alibaba’s common prosperity donation is only the latest investor concern. Beijing’s ongoing regulatory crackdown has singled out the e-commerce giant Jack Ma cofounded in 1999 in several ways. In November, Shanghai’s stock market suspended the $36 billion IPO of Ant Group, Alibaba’s fintech affiliate, ostensibly due to compliance issues with China’s financial regulations. Then in April, the company received the whopping $2.8 billion antitrust fine.

The regulatory actions have dampened Alibaba’s skyrocketing growth. Fueled by its e-commerce and fintech businesses, Alibaba has jumped almost 400 places on Fortune’s Global 500 ranking over the past half-decade, from its debut at No. 462 in 2017 to No. 63 today. Alibaba’s market cap almost quadrupled over the same period, from $220 billion at the beginning of 2017 to a high of $840 billion in October 2020. But now Alibaba’s shares are down by over 50% since that all-time high, valuing the company at $455 billion as of Oct. 18. 

Zhang downplayed the stock slide. “We don’t manage our business by share price,” he said. Instead, the company focuses on developing technology to find “new opportunities for value creation,” he said.

In addition to regulatory trouble, Alibaba has faced cultural crises this year that have rattled its 250,000-member workforce.

In August, a female Alibaba employee accused her supervisor of sexually assaulting her after an alcohol-soaked outing with clients. The case caught fire on Chinese social media and even attracted the eye of regulators, who criticized the Chinese tech sector practice of “forced drinking.” Alibaba set up an internal task force to investigate the sexual assault incident and eventually fired the manager in question, but the company also suspended those who leaked the employee account. Chinese law enforcement decided not to pursue charges against the alleged assailant. In a memo to employees, Zhang called the case a “humiliation for all Alibaba employees” and condemned “the ugly culture of forced drinking.”

When asked about Alibaba’s response to the case, Zhang framed the case as an instance of growing pains. “We’re 22 years old. We are getting older, [like turning] from a kid to a young man,” he said. “We have to think about how to run the company…[to] upgrade our governance model, upgrade our operating model, and even upgrade our culture.”

Zhang also tried to downplay Alibaba’s role in the tech sector’s infamous “996” culture, which refers to working from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week. One of the most famous proponents of “996” was Ma. “If you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?” he wrote in 2019.

Zhang took a different tack from Ma, saying that he doesn’t know why “people tied this ‘996’ [idea] with Alibaba.”

China’s tech workers are frustrated with long hours. Most recently they chronicled their grievances in a public spreadsheet where employees at tech firms, including Alibaba, submitted details about their working conditions. The country’s top court weighed in on the issue in late August, declaring the practice of forced overtime illegal. 

Zhang argues the nature of e-commerce means sometimes working unorthodox hours.

“For some jobs, they need to work at night,” he said. “And they even have to work over the weekend because that’s the peak time for consumers.” Big shopping occasions like Spring Festival and Singles Day demand long hours, Zhang said. Employees “have to work together to create a successful Nov. 11,” he said, referring to Singles Day, the one-day sales event that’s the world’s largest shopping festival.

Zhang says that he doesn’t consider time spent working as a measure of employee performance. “We give people flexible ways of working,” he said. “We focus on results, focus on quality, rather than the length of time people spend.”

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