Ambition or PR gambit? Alibaba's Jack Ma pledges to become biggest employer in US

The office of the US Trade Representative put Alibaba's electronic sales platform Taobao on a blacklist last month.

China's Alibaba secures $3 billion loan to finance acquisition spree
A logo of Alibaba Group is pictured at its headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, October 14, 2015. Reuters

Chinese internet entrepreneur Jack Ma told the US President-elect Donald Trump in meeting earlier this week he would create one million jobs in the US over the next five years. Ma said this will be possible when his online shopping behemoth Alibaba brings to its platform as many as a million US small businesses, which can sell their products to Chinese customers.

The poster boy of Chinese internet business said this during a meeting with Trump, who has consistently espoused trade protectionism, ringing alarm bells in China, the so-called factory of the world.

However, analysts are skeptical about the tall promise. One million US jobs represent 1 percent of all US jobs, and if Ma can help create that many jobs he would be the biggest US employer. Some analysts say Ma's pledge is a PR exercise aimed at polishing the image of his company's online platforms.

Last month, the office of the US Trade Representative put Alibaba's electronic sales platform Taobao on a blacklist, citing lack of efforts to limit the volume of fake goods.

"This is more made to relieve its PR pressure, so Alibaba won't become a target of attack after Trump takes office," independent e-commerce analyst Li Chengdong told AFP, referring to Ma's statement. "As Alibaba's counterfeits problem is indeed quite serious, it is an easy target," he added.

Peking University professor Jeffrey Towson echoed the views saying Ma is one Chinese businessman who has cultivated warm ties with world leaders and this good PR is a practical approach. "Alibaba is serious about the USA ... Every business person in China, and globally, now knows that what Trump wants to hear about is US jobs. So that is what they are all now saying," he said.

Trump has consistently criticised China's trade policies and termed China a currency manipulator. Alibaba, which has deep ties with the Chinese government, might want to soften the wrath of Trump in the coming years even as it lays out ambitious plans of expansion in the US.

"It's important, given the anti-China rhetoric that has been coming out, to innoculate the company and himself from that," Duncan Clark, chairman of investment advisory firm BDA China and author of a book on Alibaba, said, according to Reuters.

"There's nothing to lose in talking about what they're trying to do here which is stimulate demand in China," he added.