The five Chinese entrepreneurs leading the country's technology revolution
From a global online 'anything store’ to high-end smartphones challenging Apple, a generation of billionaire entrepreneurs is rising in the East. We take a closer look at five of them.
By Christopher Williams 6:31PM GMT 04 Jan 2014
Global e-commerce is booming and Shanghai and other huge Chinese cities are alight with new ideas as the country shifts gear from assembly line to powerhouse of the technology industry. Photo: Alamy
Jack Ma is currently leader of the Chinese tech pack. As executive chairman of Alibaba, a web service used by businesses around the world to trade an incredible variety of goods, he has a high profile in the US.
It has helped that the 49-year-old former language teacher is a fluent English speaker. A large part of the interest also stems from the potential for Alibaba to list on Wall Street this year. He is being courted after a falling out with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange over stock structure.
From a humble background, Mr Ma is seen as the embodiment of the new entrepreneurial China. Last year, he stepped back from executive duties to concentrate more on development issues such as healthcare and education.
More of a shrinking violet than some of his contemporaries in China’s new tech plutocracy, when he has given interviews, 42-year-old Ma Huateng has been frank about the secret of Tencent’s success.
He built an empire on copying and localising western ideas for Chinese internet users, beginning in 1998 with a local take on ICQ, an instant messenger service developed in Israel and very popular in the dotcom era.
Tencent has since diversified to operate services that range from auctions to online games, via web payments and email.
Mr Ma’s latest big hit, which is spurring international expansion, is WeChat, a free smartphone messaging app in the mould of WhatsApp. Tencent has already engaged the promotional services of Lionel Messi to help its global push.
The founder of China’s Google is now believed to be the country’s richest man, with a net worth of more than $12.2bn (£7.4bn), up $4.8bn in 2013. The son of factory workers, Mr Li studied hard and gained a masters in computer science at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
He founded Baidu in 2000 and it now serves 80pc of Chinese web searches, a similar level of dominance to that enjoyed by Google in the West. The company makes most of its money in the same way, too, charging advertisers to insert links next to relevant web search results.
Though its prospects in the West may be limited, there are hundreds of millions of Chinese yet to get online and Mr Li is targeting Brazil, Egypt and Thailand.
For a man who claims to resent being labelled “the Chinese Steve Jobs”, Lei Jun, chief executive of Xiaomi, does a lot to invite the comparison. Unlike other Chinese brands that compete mostly on price, and rather more like Apple, Xiaomi emphasises its design and quality.
Mr Lei introduces new smartphones with hyperbolic claims of “totally new” ideas in Mr Jobs’ uniform of black turtleneck and blue jeans.
Marketing aside, the substance of Xiaomi is more like Amazon. It sells its devices at close to cost and aims to make its margin on services.
Mr Lei, 44, founded Xiaomi only three years ago, but has poached senior Google staff and predicted: “We’re not just some cheap Chinese company making a cheap phone, we’re going to be a Fortune 500 company.”
Sina’s main product, Sina Weibo, is China’s equivalent of Western micro-blogging site Twitter and Charles Chao sees his company as an agent of social change in the country.
A former journalist, he joined Sina as an accountant in 1999 and rose to become chief executive in 2006. At the time, the company was best known for operating a news portal for China, similar in style to the Yahoo! home page. In 2009, Mr Chao launched Sina Weibo, after recognising the opportunity for a locally-run service after China’s censors blocked access to Twitter.
Sina Weibo is actually censored by the state, but authorities have been unable to muzzle public criticism via the service over incidents such as a 2011 train crash that killed dozens of people.