Twelve years ago, Alibaba founder Jack Ma and a group of fellow tech entrepreneurs were on a trip to Bhutan. Almost two decades had passed since the rise of China’s first internet monoliths — from Tencent to Baidu to Ma’s own Alibaba — long enough for a distinctly Chinese culture of entrepreneurship to have gelled and matured. The group got to talking: Why not distill this culture into a form of schooling and pedagogy?
In 2015, Ma and eight of his friends created Hupan University to cultivate the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. Hupan’s gleaming new campus — a cross between an Apple Store and imperial Chinese garden, complete with glass walls, meditation rooms, and an antique pavilion — was built in the Future Science and Technology City, the techno-suburbia of Hangzhou. It was located a five-minute walk from the city’s serene West Lake and a twenty-minute drive from the Alibaba headquarters. Founded as “China’s answer to Harvard Business School,” Hupan’s mission was to “discover and develop Chinese business leaders with a spirit of entrepreneurship.”
But more recently, as the attitude inside China toward the tech industry has soured, Hupan has come under criticism for serving as a glorified boys club for China’s tech elite — including from China’s authorities. In recent months, as the government has aggressively reined in Jack Ma’s business empire, it has also targeted Hupan — forcing the university to suspend enrolments, to let Ma step down as President, and to drop “university” from its title. To the Communist Party, Hupan is a problem not simply because it represents an elite but because it’s an elite that no longer shares its values.
Six years ago, when Hupan was founded, the values of the Chinese government and entrepreneurs were still more or less aligned. The university takes its name from “Hupan Gardens” — the sweaty, haphazard apartment complex in Hangzhou where Ma first founded Alibaba back in 2002. Like Hupan Gardens, the university was created like a startup, through an ad hoc process of learning by doing. Its spirit of humility, risk-taking and embracing failure are baked into the university’s pedagogy. None of the founders actually knew how to run a university. Instead, curricula were designed and based on student needs, and classes led by a roster of visiting entrepreneurs, on subjects ranging from financial management to art. “We had no idea what to teach our students for the first day of class at Hupan,” Ma said in the enrollment ceremony for the school’s 2017 class. “But we didn’t lie to our students, we just told them, let’s build the school from scratch together.”
Hupan’s vision of entrepreneurship was rooted in the neoliberal ethos that, with enough hustle, ambition, and, of course, capital, you can change the world for the better. Failure was celebrated as a rite of passage to eventual success. Just as Jack Ma rose from mediocrity — from a middling English teacher and KFC reject to an icon of Chinese success, whose e-commerce empire came to power businesses the world over — so could you. Every year, freshly admitted students, who were required to have some history of business success, were asked to stand before all their classmates and teachers and answer the question: “How has the world changed because of me?”
Many of its alumni, born after 1985, were part of the generation that reaped the benefits of economic reform, creating social change by tapping into the potential of a liberalizing market. (One such student, Geng Le, for example, created a gay dating app to harness the power of China’s “pink economy,” bringing about greater LGBTQI recognition. Another, Peng Shen, founded a crowdfunded mutual aid platform, to help Chinese patients pay exorbitant medical fees.)
But as much as Hupan presented itself as scrappy and down-to-earth, the admissions process made it feel more like an exclusive club for China’s rising tech elite. Each year, Hupan admitted only 30–40 students, with a 4% acceptance rate. Applicants had to be founders of companies with at least 30 employees and a revenue of more than $4.5 million (30 million yuan) as well as be recommended by one of the university’s sponsors — a list that included Alibaba co-founder Lucy Peng and Sequoia Capital China founder Neil Shen. Tuition cost 280,000 yuan (USD $44,840) for three years.
Students were required only to fly into Hangzhou to take classes four days every two months, so that they could return to their day jobs as tech moguls. The university’s graduates included more than 40 CEOs from China’s tech unicorns, such as Yu Kai, the CEO of the AI chipmaker Horizon Robotics, and Zhu Zhaojiang, the founder of Transsion, one of the largest smartphone sellers in Africa. Other alumni include the president of Didi, China’s largest ride-hailing app, and Ele.me, one of its largest food delivery platforms.
It is no surprise then that Hupan came under criticism for serving as an exclusive boys club for China’s tech elite. On Chinese social media, netizens pointed fingers at Hupan for being a “lakeside clubhouse” or “CEO club,” feeding into the growing sense that the tech industry is an exclusive network for a concentrated elite and no longer a path of success available to the average Zhou. Resentment, once targeted toward the guanerdai (second-generation political elite) and fuerdai (second-generation wealth,), now includes a new group — chuangerdai (second-generation entrepreneurial elite) and their various connections and privileges.
Whereas the tech industry’s brutal working hours, often termed 996 (nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week), were once worn as a badge of honor, today, that phrase is uttered by tech workers with frustration and disdain. In 2019, when Jack Ma called 996 a “blessing” and claimed that long hours were vital to Alibaba’s success, his comments were criticized as deeply out of touch. “Well for him it’s a blessing,” one contributor wrote on Reddit. “Just not for his employees.”
And it’s not just Reddit commenters turning on Ma but the party itself. Last October, after Jack Ma publicly criticized China’s regulators and state-owned banks, the government began to aggressively rein in Ma’s influence, cracking down on his expansive business empire. In November, Ant Group, Ma’s fintech company, was forced to suspend its planned 34 billion IPO in Shanghai. In April, antitrust regulators fined Alibaba a record of $2.8 billion for monopolistic practices, and Ant Group was ordered to shrink its business. Since October, Ma has kept a low profile, avoiding all public appearances.
Hupan was not spared in the clampdown. In April, it was reported that authorities forced the university to suspend enrollment. In May, the Financial Times reported that Jack Ma would step down as the president of Hupan. A week before, Hupan quietly dropped references to “university” in its names, instead calling itself the Hupan Entrepreneurship Research Center.
Videos on Chinese social media showed a worker using a blowtorch to remove Hupan University’s name from a large stone sign in front of its campus, after the Ministry of Education announced that only licensed educational institutions could use the title “university.” “Companies must correct their thinking, return the real university to the rightful place,” declared an op-ed in Xia Ke Dao, an online offshoot of the state-run paper People’s Daily. “And correct the social climate.”
Indeed, the climate for entrepreneurs in China has chilled. When Hupan was founded in 2015, the relationship between the Party and China’s tech entrepreneurs was filled with a heady optimism; Premier Li Keqiang had just introduced a policy of “Mass innovation and entrepreneurship,” and the government was pouring money into startups and incubators. “But their support was simply a temporary endorsement, a paternalistic approval,” Silvia Lindtner, a professor at the University of Michigan, studying Chinese entrepreneurship and innovation, told Rest of World. “China’s entrepreneurs never knew how long their privileges would last.”
Since then, as Alibaba and its generation of tech behemoths have grown to command such a vast market power as to — as Ma dared to do last October — challenge the authority of the Communist Party, the political winds have shifted. Hupan’s vision of entrepreneurialism — the belief that the unfettered market and powerful new technologies can serve as a vehicle of disruptive social change — no longer aligns with the Chinese government’s current vision of state-led capitalism. Their values have always been, in some ways, directly contradictory: the tech world worships experimentation and disruption; the Communist Party has a stability fetish. The party was OK with the rise of one, carefully controlled Alibaba, but perhaps not an institutional rollout of, say, 30 potential Alibabas, all bold enough to project their own, unique visions of China’s future.
“Whereas the old question that people asked about Chinese entrepreneurship was: can China produce another Steve Jobs?” says Lindtner. “Today, the new question is: Can China create another Jack Ma?”
Nobody knows. Whether China has the desire to encourage the rise of another high-profile tech mogul is unclear. But, for now, the message to the students of Hupan University, and to China’s future entrepreneurs, is clear: you’re allowed to innovate, but within the Party’s five-year plan. Push against the boundaries but stay within the lines. Change the world — but don’t you dare change the rules.