Analysts say this retraction could have been a loss for America’s workforce — if Ma’s offer had been serious in the first place.
“It’s pretty obvious that Ma’s original pledge was political theatrics, not a serious promise,” said Arthur Kroeber, a founding partner at the Beijing consultancy Gavekal Dragonomics. “It was part of a Chinese effort to butter up Trump early in his tenure.”
In January 2017, Alibaba — Asia’s largest online retailer, valued at $500 billion — announced that it would create 1 million jobs in the United States over the next five years.
The pledge followed Ma’s high-profile visit to Trump Tower in New York, where, according to incoming Trump administration officials at the time, Trump and the Chinese businessman discussed 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.”
Ma had said he wanted to boost small businesses, particularly in the Midwest, and help farmers and clothing makers connect to a larger market. (Alibaba has performed similar outreach to rural merchants in China.)
Right away, it was clear: These would not be direct jobs — Alibaba employs a comparatively minuscule 66,000 or so full-time workers. Rather, Ma forecast that the company would allow U.S. sellers to reach more Chinese consumers, fueling a spike in entrepreneurial employment.
Data on jobs tied to trade tell a different story.
U.S. exports of goods and services to China would have to rise by a staggering $206 billion to create 1 million more American jobs, according to figures from the Commerce Department.
Last year, that figure was $188 billion total — and current U.S. exports include items that Alibaba can’t sell, including education services and aircraft, said Derek Scissors, a China economy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“If all tariffs went to zero, we’d still be waiting a long, long time for Ma to fulfill his pledge,” Scissors said.
Trump embraced Ma’s promise as an early win for his new administration. Trump campaigned on “bringing back” U.S. jobs lost to the forces of globalization, and businesses scrambled to give him credit for their expansion plans on U.S. soil — even if some blueprints came together years before he sought office.
“Jack and I are going to do some great things,” Trump told reporters.
China business observers, however, raised an eyebrow.
“Who knows what he meant then or now,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research in Beijing, about Ma’s recent reversal.
“Jack Ma is a master of marketing and very adept political operator,” said James McGregor, chairman of the greater China region for the consultancy APCO Worldwide.
Alibaba did not respond for requests for comment.
Kroeber, the China consultant, said Ma’s statement is probably sending another sort of message.
“He’s signaling that he no longer believes that constructive engagement with the U.S. is possible,” he said.
Trump has said such retaliation would compel him to slap levies on a further $267 billion in Chinese products, effectively placing higher border taxes on everything the United States buys from China.
As the commercial battle intensified this month, Ma announced that he plans to step down next year as chairman at Alibaba. He said the increasingly chaotic international business climate had nothing to do with his decision.