What Alibaba Can Teach G20 Leaders — China Daily OpEd Commentary

China Daily

Rural Taobao

It’s been 740 years since Hangzhou could rightly claim to be the most important city on earth. Back then, it was the capital of the world’s wealthiest and most developed nation, China during the Southern Song Dynasty. This week Hangzhou will briefly again be the center of the world’s attention and admiration, as the leaders of twenty of the world’s most developed countries arrive in the city to participate in the two-day G20 Summit.

The world’s spotlight will fall both on Hangzhou’s most famous historical landmark, West Lake, as well as its most famous local company, Alibaba, which also happens to be the world’s largest e-commerce company. Alibaba’s founder and chairman Jack Ma, is a Hangzhou native. He has spoken often of his pride that the G20 will be held in his hometown, boasting “Hangzhou has become the driving force of China’s new economy.” He suggests G20 visitors might want to rise one morning at 5am to walk about West Lake, to see Hangzhou scenery ancient and modern.

Alibaba has changed Hangzhou and changed China. But, to really grasp the full and positive extent of that change, world leaders would need to venture out from Hangzhou and visit some of China’s smallest, poorest and most remote rural villages. Here Alibaba’s impact is perhaps the most transformational. That’s because Alibaba has made a special effort to bring the benefits and convenience of online shopping to China’s rural families, the 45% of China’s population that still live on the land.

Since Alibaba listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, the company announced plans to spend RMB 10 billion on rural e-commerce infrastructure, to make it possible for people in over 100,000 Chinese rural villages for the first time to buy and sell on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this effort. E-commerce now offers the fastest and most durable way to improve living standards among China’s traditional peasants. By getting online they can shop more widely and buy more cheaply a vast range of products never before available in village China. In addition, also for the first time, they can sell directly their farm products, both fresh and packaged, to tens of millions of customers living in cities across China.

I’m one of those urban dwellers in China who now does some of his food shopping from tiny rural family businesses on Taobao. In the last week I bought dried chili peppers from Sichuan, apple vinegar from Shanxi, goji berries from Qinghai and dried sweet potato chips from Shandong. Everything I buy from rural folks is great. But, for me and probably many others, the real enjoyment comes from knowing that, thanks to Alibaba, my money can go directly to the people working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families in rural China. This, in turn, helps narrow the income gap between rural and urban.

Unlike the two big US e-commerce companies, Amazon and eBay, Alibaba takes no commission on purchases made on Taobao. This is what economists call “frictionless trade”, where buyers and sellers can transact without any middlemen taking a cut. It’s a dream of farmers worldwide, to sell products directly to customers and so earn more for their hard work.

Online shopping in rural China is now growing far faster than in cities. And yet what’s most exciting, we’re still in the early days. In the future, farmers should be able to save significant money and improve harvests by buying seeds, fertilizer and tools on Taobao and other specialized online sales platforms.

To get there, Alibaba is paying for tens of thousands of “Village Taobao” centers across China. Here, farmers can get free help to buy and sell online. Nowhere else on the planet is e-commerce being as successfully introduced into the lives of small village farmers. The world should take note, and China should take pride.

This year marks the first time China has hosted a G20 summit. Looking at the agenda, the twenty world leaders will hold detailed discussion on trade, fostering innovation and eradicating poverty. Meantime, Alibaba is busy putting such talk into action. Its efforts to spread e-commerce in China’s countryside provide concrete proof of how tech innovation can be both inclusive and helpful to all of society.

By Peter Fuhrman

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.


More of China’s Art Treasures Belong At Home

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Hangzhou’s main art museum, known as the Zhejiang Provincial Museum,  sits on a nicer plot of land than any museum I’ve ever been to, including the Louvre in Paris and National Gallery in London. It’s on a small bend in the road that circles the city’s famous Xi Hu, or West Lake. From the museum entrance, you look out across the lake at a particularly lovely spot, with a small steep island ahead and the steeper mountains beyond. The museum itself is modern, in a classically-Chinese format, with pavilions reached by gabled walkways, set among small streams teeming with koi. 

The setting is perfect, but sadly, the museum’s contents are anything but. One pavilion offers a bunch of world “art treasures” that looked like they were bought for ten bucks each at airport souvenir stores . A low point: a set of mounted bull horns from Indiana. Another beautiful pavilion had the paintings and personal effects of a Hangzhou-born 20th century artist who had studied painting in France in the early part of the century, and then did some so-so pastiches of Chinese subject matter, incorporating elements of Cezanne, Picasso, Monet among others. 

A pavilion said to hold “historical relics” was locked and empty. Finally, you get to the two buildings with Chinese porcelains. My hopes remained high, since, after all, Hangzhou is the greatest of all China’s cultural cities, capital of the Southern Song dynasty, which produced (for my money) the finest porcelains the world has ever seen, including Jun, Ding, Guan, Yaozhou, Longguan, Qingbai, Cizhou, Ge styles. (The bowl above is an example of Song Dynasty Guan porcelain.) I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of Song porcelains over the years, in museums in the West, and have handled a fair number at auctions in London and New York.  Many were produced close to Hangzhou. 

My not-unrealistic expectation, therefore,  was that the Hangzhou museum would have both more and better Song porcelains than I’d ever seen. So sure was I of this that I invited four CFC colleagues to come along with me, after we finished a client meeting. 

Bad choice. The museum, though in a gorgeous setting on a lake fabled for its beauty and historical meaning, is mainly a sad reminder that many of China’s most important art treasures are held outside the country, in museums and private collections. The porcelains in the Hangzhou museum look like (and most probably are) the leftovers after all the best pieces had been spirited away. The celadons have little sparkle or translucence, and have a gimpy shape.  There are no examples of the Jun and Guan styles most prized by connoisseurs. The one Yaozhou bowl is clumsily carved. Song burial urns are among the least ornate and less precisely-molded I’ve ever seen. 

The two pavilions with Song porcelains are a colossal disappointment, not just because the art works are generally of middling quality. Instead, a museum that should be a encapsulation of the greatness of Song culture is, instead, a subtle reminder of how much has been lost or pillaged.  Thousands of Song wares are in collections, public and private, around the world. At least six times a year, Sothebys and Christies hold auctions in London, New York and Hong Kong that include dozens of  works of Song porcelain far better than any on display in the Hangzhou museum. Museums from Tokyo to Paris to Washington D.C. are loaded with great works from the Song. 

But, here in Hangzhou, there are only cast-offs. Among the millions of Chinese who come to Hangzhou each year as tourists,  most will likely leave with no concrete appreciation of the paramount artistic achievements of the Song culture that sprang from here.  Instead, many must end up wondering, after visiting the museum, if there’s really anything much to be proud of from that period. One of the two pavilions for Song porcelain is almost entirely made up of shards of the most common sort of household pottery from the Song era, not the exquisite pieces crafted for emperors and scholars. 

The effect is a little like visiting Tiffany, expecting to ogle the diamonds, and finding it filled instead with broomsticks and knitting needles. 

The Chinese government, quite publicly, has been seeking to block the sale at auction of art objects looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing. It’s a small step toward the goal of one day recovering more of China’s lost artistic patrimony. I’d personally like to see the Chinese government more active, not just blocking the sale of items stolen long ago, but also buying some of the more important Chinese antiques that come on the market.

It’s easy to understand why the Chinese government has so far refused to do so, since they don’t want to let others profit from what it sees as wrongful expropriation. But, as a lesser of evils, I’d prefer them to bring back some of the more beautiful objects, and add them to the collections of important national museums like the one in Hangzhou. That way, at least, more Chinese would have opportunities to admire up close the crowning achievements of Chinese culture. 

It’s a good side project for CIC, China’s sovereign wealth fund, and China’s State Pension Fund. Along with trying to secure the country’s financial future, these two organizations could also invest, on a comparably small scale, to secure more of the country’s incomparable artistic heritage. 

The museum visit left me feeling sad, but also resolved to do my own small part. I’m fortunate to own a few Chinese porcelains and jade pieces from the Qing and Ming dynasties. The jade was left to me by my grandfather, who started collecting in the 1950s. I’d like to donate the art works to a Chinese museum when I die, if not sooner.  While nowhere near as important as the items regularly at auction at Sothebys and Christies, they are decent examples of the output of some of China’s finest artists and artisans. 

Art is a shared inheritance. But, more of China’s treasures should be seen where they were crafted.