I can still feel the pain at the tip of my earlobe.
It was 1968 or ’69. Before me sat a steaming pile of neon green lima beans. Beyond them stood a stern Irish nanny by the name of Ellen Plunkett with her arms tightly crossed. It was a matter of wills, and we were both willful.
“Children are starving in China, Billy,” she said. “You’ll eat those lima beans, and you’ll like them.”
“Why don’t you give me an envelope and I’ll mail them some?” I quipped.
My 6-year-old obnoxiousness was followed by a sharp “Ow!” (my own) which, in turn, was followed by the sound of a fork scraping hurriedly at a plate. I was brave but not stupid where Ellen Plunkett was concerned.
It’s hard not to think of those lima beans when hearing news about the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba. Alibaba held a wildly successful initial public offering on Wall Street Friday, raising an astounding $21.8 billion in a single day. Alibaba is now valued at $231.7 billion, more than Amazon and eBay combined. It was founded by a former English teacher in China named Jack Ma with an initial investment of $60,000.
Can anyone imagine just how dead, dead, dead Jack Ma would have been a few short years ago? A capitalist English teacher in China? He would have been part of a joke: “Two priests, a nun and a capitalist English teacher in China walk into a bar . . .” But today, Jack Ma’s story is very real.
So five decades after millions of people starved to death during China’s “Great Leap Forward” and 40 years after its “Cultural Revolution,” where cultural enhancement meant burning books, smashing violins and eradicating decadent pets like Chinese Shar Pei dogs, we have Alibaba, a website where one can buy violins by the case and stuffed Shar Peis — for as little as half a penny each if you buy them 1,200 at a time. This is a Chinese company, after all. They think big. You can even buy lima beans there, $1,000 per 24 metric tons.
Take that, Ellen.
The impressive Alibaba IPO will prompt new tongue wagging about the coming Chinese century and the deterioration of the West as an economic force. People will shake their heads and regurgitate lines like, “We think about today; the Chinese think 1,000 years ahead.”
Just like they did in 1970 when Mao ordered Chinese cigarette packs stamped with the slogan, “Support agriculture on a great scale,” while continuing to push an agrarian utopia. Clearly the Great Leader was onto China’s coming industrial success.
Still, China’s resurgence is undoubtedly amazing, and Alibaba shows just how fluid history can be. It shows just how much can be accomplished — and how quickly — when freedom and initiative are allowed to meet.
Another thing I remember from 1968 — a particular article of clothing. We lived near Central Park, and the Mao tunic was as much a part of the Hippie uniform in Sheep Meadow as it was for the peasant worker toiling in the suburbs of Beijing. Despite the extraordinary pain and suffering that strict communism brought the Chinese people, it somehow, inexplicably, was cool to wear Mao garb here. I’ve never figured that out.
Thankfully, for the nearly 1.4 billion people living in China today, the Chinese government figured out that communism is suicidal and capitalism, for all its faults, works best.
It’s funny, though, I can’t seem to find on Alibaba.com some of the books supporting that point. No matter how hard I try, for example, I cannot find George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or “1984.”
Now, when those show up on Alibaba, the Chinese will really be on to something.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.