BEIJING — Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, strolled into Trump Tower on Monday to talk to Donald Trump about a plan to create 1 million U.S. jobs — at least that’s how they sold it.
Trump’s incoming press secretary said the tycoons would discuss “how Alibaba can create 1 million U.S. jobs by enabling 1 million U.S. small businesses to sell goods into the China and the Asian marketplace.”
For its part, the company pitched it as a certainty: “Alibaba,” it said in a statement, “will create 1 million U.S. jobs.”
When Trump and Ma emerged, the president-elect said it was a “great” meeting; Ma nodded. “Job Boom,” cooed CNBC. So case closed on those million new gigs?
Hardly. For those seeking clues about the president-elect’s foreign policy, Monday’s exchange confirmed two things: a focus on trade and fuzziness on numbers.
On some levels, the meeting made sense. Trump wants to be seen as negotiator in chief, so why not meet with the head of a trading empire? Ma, whose business was recently returned by the United States to the list of “notorious markets” for selling fakes, got good press from the soon-to-be most powerful man in the world.
But the deal they said they discussed — and pitched to the news media as fact — does not add up. “Theatrics,” said Duncan Clark, the author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built .”
He Maochun, an expert on economic diplomacy at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, called it a “nice hope.”
Indeed, a look at the numbers suggests that Americans expecting 1 million actual jobs will almost certainly be disappointed.
There’s no question that 1 million new jobs would be big. And cooperating with Alibaba, which has close links to the Chinese government, could theoretically be good for U.S.-China ties, which are hurting after an election season filled with China-bashing by Trump.
The plan, such as it is, calls for the creation of 1 million jobs over five years.
Given that the size of the U.S. labor force is about 150 million, that number seems high. Think about it: In five years, will more than 1 in 150 Americans work for Alibaba?
The number also seems out of step with employment figures. Alibaba employs about 35,000 people. The company’s U.S. competitor, Amazon, employs fewer than 300,000 around the world. (Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
What Alibaba may be talking about is what it sometimes calls “job opportunities,” or the chance for people to sell goods on its platform. Millions of Chinese make money doing this, and 1 million Americans could potentially do so, too — but that’s not what most Americans think when they read headlines about 1 million jobs.
Nor are these jobs necessarily new. Ma has been pitching his company as a U.S. job creator since before Trump was a serious candidate for president, Clark noted. In a June 8, 2015, commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Ma outlined a plan that sounded quite similar to what he unveiled with Trump on Monday.
“Our U.S. strategy is simple and clear,” he wrote. “We want to help U.S. entrepreneurs, small business owners, and brands and companies of all sizes sell their goods to the growing Chinese consumer class. Chinese consumers will get to buy the American products they want. This, in turn, will help create American jobs and increase U.S. exports.”
It’s possible that the meeting with Trump made Ma decide to step up his plans. But the move to give Trump credit for a done or nearly done deal had recent echoes.
In December, for instance, Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son met with Trump and then said he planned to invest $50 billion in the United States, creating 50,000 jobs — and Trump took credit. Half of that money, though, had been pledged before America chose its next president.
Executives seem to reason that they can gain a lot by meeting with the president-elect. In Ma’s case, Clark said, it provided “good optics” for a company battered by U.S. regulators. It could also provide “inoculation” from a market-moving Trump tweet. Staying on his good side could mean no late-night disparaging Twitter messages like the one that sent Boeing’s stock plummeting.
Trump, meanwhile, gets headlines about “China” and “jobs” and a meeting with a man who has Beijing’s ear — a “win,” as he might say.
But working closely with a company that U.S. regulators consider an intellectual-property thief could cost Team Trump. Now for sale on Taobao, the Alibaba platform famous for fakes: red baseball caps that read “Make America Great Again” — knockoffs, all.
Congcong Zhang and Luna Lin reported from Beijing.