White House

Trump puts Chinese criticism aside and meets with Chinese business magnate

In this Dec. 16, 2016, file photo, President-elect Donald Trump speaks in Orlando, Fla.
In this Dec. 16, 2016, file photo, President-elect Donald Trump speaks in Orlando, Fla. AP

President-elect Donald Trump has criticized, even threatened, China repeatedly.

But on Monday Trump put that aside in his meeting with Chinese businessman Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba Group, a family of Internet-based businesses.

Trump and Ma, along with Michael Evans, president of the Alibaba Group, discussed how Alibaba can create 1 million jobs in the U.S. by enabling American small businesses to sell goods in China and Asia as a whole, transition spokesman Sean Spicer said.

“We had a great meeting,” Trump told reporters after the meeting at Trump Tower in New York. “And a great, great entrepreneur, one of the best in the world. And he loves this country and he loves China. . . . Jack and I going to do some great things. Small business, right?”

Ma told reporters after the meeting that he and Trump will have a good working relationship despite the president-elect’s past comments. “China and U.S. relations should be strengthened and more friendly,” he said.

Ma described Trump as very smart and having an open mind. “I told him of my ideas and how we can improve the trade with China, especially small businesses,” he said.

Alibaba is the world’s largest online retailer. While it doesn’t compete directly with Amazon in the United States, it caters to China’s 1.3 billion consumers and their ever-rising appetite for products. The company had a market value of $231 billion in September of 2014, when it completed a successful IPO that made Ma one of China’s richest men.

Ma and China have significant stakes in U.S. trade decisions. Last year, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative returned Taobao, Alibaba’s eBay-like online marketplace, to its list of egregious platforms selling counterfeit goods.

While the redesignation did not immediately hurt Alibaba’s stock price, it has proved embarrassing for Ma and Chinese government leaders. The latter are trying recraft the country’s image as a manufacturer of quality, original merchandise. Being relabeled as a pirate did not help.

Alibaba had been on the U.S. piracy list before, but then “they hired some really good lobbyists and got off the list before doing their IPO,” said Bill Bishop, a D.C.-based expert on Chinese business and author of the influential Sinocism China Newsletter.

“That was a big deal,” said Bishop, adding that Ma clearly wants to build a personal relationship with Trump, given the uncertain state of U.S.-China relations.

Trump’s trade office picks could influence Alibaba’s designation in the future. However, any administration favoritism toward Alibaba might enrage U.S. business leaders, including Trump supporters, who’ve been victims of Chinese piracy.

New Balance, for instance, is a Trump supporter, triggering controversy when it publicly sided with the GOP nominee late last year. Taobao sells shoes on its website, and according to a New Balance estimate last year, roughly 90 percent of the Boston-based company’s shoes sold on the site were counterfeit.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth