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Companies, challenged over the ethics of serving shark fin soup at banquets and other functions, are quickly abandoning the practice ‘to do the right thing’.
The meeting room at the posh five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Central, was a hive of activity, packed with dozens of journalists, and company officials, amid the din of chattering voice. Suddenly the room fell into a silence, equally as deafening, as the last question, was put to Alibaba Group chairman and CEO, Jack Ma . Heads turned quickly to see who had the temerity to lay down the challenge, “Is Alibaba an ethical company?”
It was Nov 6, 2007. The gathering, was called, in a spirit of celebration, after the group’s highly successful Hong Kong Stock Exchange IPO. The offering had raised a whopping HK$13.1 billion ($1.7 billion) in gross proceeds.
Caught off-guard, Ma quickly turned defensive. As he prepared to answer, probably, he wondered what the questioner was referring, and in parallel how to defuse the pointed question without getting bad publicity for the company was a platform for millions of buyers and suppliers around the world to carry on e-commerce. The question had been put by Dr Brian W Darvell, a Reader at the University of Hong Kong, at the time. He attended the meeting as a private individual. “I went on through some generalities, becoming more specific and finally landed on the question of the sale of shark fins on the Alibaba.com website. I wanted Ma to ban sharks fin listings on his web portal.”
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Darvell recalls Ma asking if he could answer in Chinese, and Darvell suggested it would not be very helpful to him. So Ma, a former English teacher at Hangzhou Teachers College, spoke in English and said very plainly, after some preamble, that he understood the problem. He pledged immediately that he and his family members would henceforth refrain from eating shark fin soup, and also that he would do his best to persuade Alibaba employees to do the same. “Just to make sure, I got him to repeat this,” Darvell says.
Ma then promised to discuss the issue, but asked that the discussions be done “offline”, handing Darvell his business card.
“The assembled press was quite animated and I was pursued by some out of the meeting, but there was no trouble,” Darvell. He noted wryly that the company did not call security guards to chase him from the meeting, even though he admitted, he was a gate crasher. Darvell explained that he did not exactly get into the press conference with forged press credentials, but had bluffed his way into the conference.
Despite Ma’s promise and pledge, nothing happened. Darvell spent the next year trying to get Alibaba to address the issue.
Another opportunity arose to nail Ma. The Alibaba CEO was giving a lecture at the University of Hong Kong on Dec 1, 2008. “I (being a staff member of the university) registered and attended. As Ma left afterwards by a side door, I managed to catch up with him (chasing him and his entourage along the dark path around the outside of the Lok Yew Hall).
Despite his minders, I asked him what he proposed to do to honor his promise of a year ago, and whether he would stop facilitating the sale of shark fin [on his Alibaba website],” Darvell said, while at the same time, trying to deliver his name card to Ma.