Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built

Duncan Clark, Ecco, 287 pages, $27.99. Not since John Rockefeller has a businessman defined a country's transformation as well as Jack Ma does. Alibaba utterly dominates e-commerce in China, and it also has made inroads into Internet finance, cloud computing and logistics. Its flotation in New York in 2014 was the biggest public offering ever, and with a fortune worth perhaps $23 billion, Ma is one of China's richest men. How did a poor boy who barely scraped into a teachers college manage this? Like Rockefeller, Ma spotted a confluence of technologies and market opportunities. The rise of the Internet came just as China was gearing up to join the World Trade Organization. Duncan Clark, an expert on China's technology sector, explains the result in his fascinating new book. Ma realized that with rising incomes, but not as well-developed retail, e-commerce could quickly become a potent force. China's online consumers are now the world's most voracious, spending some 3 trillion yuan ($464 billion) in e-commerce transactions yearly.

How did Ma come from nowhere to overcome such American rivals as Yahoo (an eventual investor in Alibaba) and eBay? The answer lies in the most powerful cult of all: a team of martial-arts heroes with Jack Ma as its leader. Nicknames used to communicate in the office come from his stories. Team-building exercises regularly have employees do handstands together, and office romances are often made official at mass weddings witnessed by Ma.

Of course, it's more complicated than that.