“Don’t Get Surrounded” – China’s Strategy Against US Online Retail

Chess is the oldest and most popular strategy game in the west. It’s main object is gaining superiority through a decisive move against the opponent. The chess player looks for a decisive action that can lead to victory, in as few moves as possible.

Wei Qi game. Source
Wei Qi game. Source

Unlike their western counterparts, asian states have developed their military strategy around a different philosophy. Wei Qi, or the game of Go (as referred to in Japan) is the traditional game in China. Players use 180 pieces, each having the same value, to build fortifications and capture enemy positions. Unlike chess, the players don’t have a clear view of the competitor’s strategy, as the pieces are continually laid down. Matches are hardly seen as win or loose and the score can be overturned during the match, multiple times.

While chess players look for decisive actions, Wei Qi players use continuos movement to avoid being surrounded. The game, just like its western equivalent, is based on centuries of difficult wars. Due to China’s long and troubled history, its strategic approach has become less about direct confrontation and more about avoiding defeat and gaining relative advantage toward the opponent.

Western countries are playing the wrong game

Henry Kissinger expressed his view that Wei Qi is the path to understanding China’s strategy. In his book “On China” he starts describing Chinese policies through this ancient game. Although Kissinger’s metaphor is aimed at politics and military actions, it can just as well be applied to economics and for that matter, online retail.

When Ebay tried to access the Chinese market in 2004, Jack Ma, the founder of AliBaba Group, has sensed that this move may be detrimental to his own company, then providing internet marketing options to small and medium companies in China. He felt that although Ebay addressed the individual sellers, there was no clear distinction between individual businesses and small/medium companies in China.

Ebay had just laid the first stone on Jack Ma’s Wei Qi board. He decided he had to escape this potentially dangerous situation and launched Taobao, a company directly competing Ebay in China. The companies fought valiantly, with eBay trying to form partnerships against Alibaba and Taobao and investing $100 million in its Ebay EachNet operations.

While Ebay was buying all ad spaces it could find online, in a search for the decisive move, AliBaba bought TV and radio ad space, knowing the Chinese consumers were more influenced by  traditional media at the time. Ebay focused on increasing product listing numbers, while AliBaba focused on customer service. Piece by piece, AliBaba laid down all its advantages and finally pushed Ebay out of the Chinese market, in 2006.

Unfortunately, Ebay was not playing the right game in China. It’s strategy was flawed as it wasn’t able to find the check-mate move. Jack Ma made sure his strategy encircled and captured Ebay’s future earnings. But it was not enough. His game of Wei Qi was not just a timely thing. It was a prolonged campaign.

Chinese online retailers are far from stopping

This year AliBaba decided it will get listed in the United States. After it has managed to grow to handle almost 84% of China’s Ecommerce market, it has now decided to cross the Pacific and try an offensive move inside what is now the second biggest ecommerce market, the US.

AliBaba is not the only Chinese company reaching for the US online retail market. 58.com, a Chinese company dealing with classified ads and listed on the US market, has just received a $736 million investment from Tencent, another Chinese internet company.

Although both these companies are now tapping the capital market in the US, their long term intentions are probably more ambitious. Their presence in the US is a sure way to avoid encirclement. Whenever their position will become endangered, they will push farther.

While the Chinese – US economic dynamics are far more complicated and it cannot all be reduced to a game, one thing is for sure. The Yangtze crocodiles have crossed the Pacific and they are not there to play chess.

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