Jack Ma, Counterfeiting in China and His Opinion Piece in WSJ

Fakes Aside, the Red Giant is Brimming with Newfangled Ideas, too!

It is hard not to be inspired by the poverty-to-prosperity ascent of Mr Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba Group and the richest man in China with a net worth of nearly US$25 billion.

Born into a poor family and with less-than-stellar schooling, his job-search ended up in several rejections, including one at KFC. Often seen as a maverick, forthright businessman, Mr Ma has never been shy about his past. He had no need to, as it is the present that counts with his visionary zest making him scale great heights.

Don't Complain, says MaWhere is the question of hating Mr Jack Ma when his climb to super-success inspires awe and admiration among those who have followed the growth of ecommerce?

Yet, I found it at odds with his persona when recently Mr Ma was quoted as saying that counterfeit goods appeared better than the original versions.

Given China’s notoriety in stealing intellectual property rights (IPR) and coming up with clones, he was pilloried in the social media. The International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC) even withdrew his company’s membership. That was too hasty a move without going deep into the issue, exposing any prejudices the group may have nurtured.

Sensationalism, Media’s weapon for survival

Thanks to his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, there is now clarity on his position, taken out of context and blown out of proportions – something journalists are notorious for. In an era where social engagement is increasingly making the mainstream media irrelevant, sensationalism is their weapon for survival.

The newspaper gave him the opportunity to set the record straight and Mr Ma comes out clean by saying that any “failure to protect brands is akin to thievery.”

Highlighting the opinion piece, CNBC quotes the billionaire as saying “fakes had no place on his e-commerce platforms.”

Jack Ma

Business Model Transformation

Mr Ma writes: “What I shared with our investors last week was an observation: that the dynamics between some brands and their manufacturing partners, and brands and their customers, are shifting due to economic and technological developments.”

He clarifies that his statement was made to highlight how the trends may challenge the business model of some established brands. “That’s reality.”

Relevance of Thought Leadership Pieces

The publication of Mr Ma’s commentary in The Wall Street Journal goes beyond a simple clarification and offers insights into market trends.

It has also helped place accent on the relevance of opinion pieces in newspapers. They are not like those that make it to the Letters to the Editor columns. They are thought leadership pieces from subject matter experts (SMEs) that give an authoritative view of what is shaping the world, from business to politics

Journalists are not SMEs

Journalists are not SMEs. Not even those that are assigned to specific beats or verticals (sports, business, technology, etc.). The scope is broad and they cannot be expected to have a firm grip on what they are writing about.

It is a challenge for newspapers to attract SMEs. Why will anyone qualified enough in a professional area of expertise want to take on a job in the traditional media? It is a field that has been losing its lustre!

Their main charter is to report on events without tainting their pieces with opinionated ranting. Allowing them to do so will signal a compromise on objective reporting.

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Huawei Example

Let me leave this digression aside and go back to the theme of the post – Mr Ma and counterfeiting. It is not difficult to find fake goods of all top brands in China – clothing, handbags, pens, watches and what not!

But there are bigger challenges for the established players as evident in the technology sector. Take, for instance, Huawei, which had been slapped with a range of legal suits in the past by Cisco Systems over thefts of the latter’s patents.

The situation is vastly different now with Huawei itself spending big on Research and Development and coming up with its own innovations, becoming in the process a serious challenger to Cisco.

Then there are instances aplenty of the likes of electric cars (Tesla), mobile phones (Apple) and drones (DJI Phantom 3 Professional, General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, etc.) being cloned and unleashed in the market.

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…But No Dearth of Ideas in China

China keeps its eyes and ears open for exciting newfangled ideas and pioneering innovations from the U.S. that it can quickly ape for flooding the market with cheap alternatives.

At the same time, China has also been developing new-generation gizmos and gadgets, and showcasing them through major technology events such as CE China, similar to the annual Consumer Electronics expos in the U.S. and Germany (Berlin). This report in Digital Trends gives you an idea of innovations unfolding in China though high-tech products from around the world were on display there.

Moreover, hackers have been helping Chinese firms, stealing designs through cyber-attacks. Alarmingly, their target also includes military weaponry and reports show that China has already built up an arsenal of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones).

Patent thefts are not something that can give China any sense of pride but the copycat syndrome has worked and given it economic might!

G Joslin Vethakumar

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