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Barack Obama talks with Jack Ma at APEC

Alibaba founder Jack Ma with US President Barack Obama at the APEC CEO Summit in Manila, Nov. 18, 2015. Photo: Reuters

In a packed room of CEOs, US President Obama lobbed questions at Alibaba founder Jack Ma about climate change and how both government and larger companies can help young entrepreneurs on Wednesday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila.

Ma told Obama that Alibaba has been diverting 0.3 percentage points of revenues for the past six years towards programs for young people to focus on the environment. He recalled a story when he was 12, he was almost drowned in a lake, which is now a dry lakebed.

Obama, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping, oversaw a historic climate deal between the two countries in September that calls for China to adopt a carbon cap-and-trade system.

"Compared to 50 years ago, we are big," Ma said about Alibaba. "But compared to 50 years later, we are small. But if we do not care about this Earth, we do not care about the water, food and environment, I think nobody can survive whether you're big or small. So this is the concern. This is the worry I have."

Ma said that he will accept an offer from Bill Gates to invest in clean energy technology and continue Alibaba's program. "I just came back from Beijing three weeks ago," Ma said. "My throat was pained. It's too late to complain whose fault. Whether your fault or my fault, let's solve the problem together. It's the combination — we're combining the work of government, private sectors, scientists, and sociologists and philanthropists. We have to work together."

Obama asked Ma how he thought that government and established businesses could help young entrepreneurs.

"Jack, you have the benefit of being on both sides the equation: early entrepreneur, scratching and clawing to get things done and now a very successful businessman," Obama said. "How can both government and larger companies" help people like you.

Ma quipped, "Government is simple -- just reduce the tax, or no tax, for these guys," he said gesturing out to the audience of assembled chuckling CEOs.

Call for e-WTO

During his speech at Wednesday's APEC CEO Summit, Ma said that globalization, over the past 10 years, bolstered economies and provided tremendous growth for big organizations and developed countries. Developing nations, however, did not benefit enough from it, said Ma.

Stressing the need to support these economies and small businesses, he suggested a need for a new WTO or what he coined, "WTO 2.0 or e-WTO", in which trade agreements should be formed between businesses, rather than governments, so political considerations would not come into play.

"WTO currently is about establishing an agreement between governments, but a real trade treaty should be about an agreement between businesses. The businesses agree, and the governments follow," he said.

Ma said that Alibaba reached $500 billion of transactions per year because it skirts governments.

"If we had a negotiation with all governments this will go nowhere because they will never agree with each other. Because we didn't negotiate with them, we made this thing happen," Ma said.

Ma said, "Free trade is the best tool to help people understand each other. Trade isn't about the trading of products but of culture, passion, innovation, and creation. Regardless of the country or size of the company, trade is about freedom. Trade is a human right. It shouldn't be used as a tool against other nations."

Noting that the WTO over the past two decades had provided much support to major companies, he said its efforts for the next 20 years should now be focused on "the small guys", which he believed provided the most innovation.


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