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Brian Wong: Bridging East and West with Youth Culture

April 11, 2022
Brian Wong, founder and chairman of Radii.

Former Alibaba exec and founder of Radii talks bridging East and West with China’s youth culture.

Bilateral relations between the United States and China have been making headlines for years now. Between the tensions that arose with the Trump administration’s tariffs, to the current Ukraine conflict, the media portrayal of each side has been fraught.

As the former head of international marketing and global sales at Alibaba and former special assistant to Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Brian Wong has made a career out of fostering deeper understanding in emerging markets. He founded digital media company Radii with the goal of sharing on-the-ground stories and insights of China’s youth culture, and to help bridge the gap between East and West.

We talk with Brian about finding his path to Alibaba and Radii, misconceptions between East and West, and how understanding youth culture might be the key to success.

You grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but have lived in China for the past 20 years. What first attracted you to China, and what made you stay?

My first full-time move here was in 1996. I was a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center. That was a pivotal year because I intended to pursue a career in health care back in the U.S., and then I ended up coming to China for grad school.

I stayed because I felt there was a seismic shift happening in China at the time. I saw how this economic growth was changing people's lives for the better, whether it's in their daily life or in the infrastructure around them, not just the roads and the buildings, but also the health care system. I started to see how these corporations that were coming into China were bringing their expertise, but also there was this inflow of FDI (foreign direct investment). That allowed me to get a glimpse of what was happening in China.

You were Alibaba’s fifty-second employee and the company’s first American employee. What was that experience like working under Jack Ma at Alibaba?

I saw that combination being quite compelling, because Alibaba was leveraging technology to help those in the emerging market by providing jobs and opportunities. Alibaba sounded like a great combination of all the things that had been interesting to me in those last three, four years on my journey.

I decided to join the company at the end of 1999, and I moved back to China for that. Everywhere around me, tech was taking off—that was when Google was starting and Yahoo was already famous, so I thought it would be amazing if you could transplant that into a place like China that had such a great need—but the infrastructure and everything else needed improvement.

That story of the last 20-something years is how China has built that infrastructure to now become the largest e-commerce market in the world. China represents 52% of global e-commerce, and over half of China's retail now is driven off of e-commerce, which is quite an amazing story. But the most amazing thing about it is the amount of jobs that it's created as a result of the technology and the accessibility. It’s provided job opportunities and trade opportunities to rural communities that wouldn’t be possible if the internet wasn't here and ecommerce didn't thrive.

Having worked in both the U.S. and in China, what are some of the biggest misconceptions each side has about the other? What can we learn from each other?

Everybody talks about this ideological war that  is taking place between the U.S. and China. I actually think that the government systems might seem different, but it's really about the process by which you go about making those decisions.

I think what we all want, whether it's the people in society or the governments, is to have a stable, prosperous, and safe society for everyone to live in, and that we pursue the things that are important to us and have that freedom to do so. And a lot of that starts with the basic necessities of food,I think one thing to point out is that Chinese society, despite people in the media portraying it as homogeneous and a bunch of people that are sheltered because of the Great Firewall, there is a diversity of opinions, increasingly so in the younger generations. Then as they progress, they want to be able to ideate, innovate, and be creative. For the most part, those things are being pursued by both societies.

I decided to start Radii in 2017 as a passion project. I really felt that what was missing in a lot of the conversation was the nuances of what's happening on the ground here in China. Politics represent the collection of views that are based on values and perceptions of our country's society and culture, and if you don't have enough understanding of that culture, then your politics and the business decisions you make are going to be affected by that. So rather than just address the tip of the iceberg, I felt it was important to build a base of better understanding, and that there was no better way to do that than to enable and give light to stories that are coming from the youth culture here in China. That includes things like music, fashion, design, innovation, wellness—all these are all topics that matter to everyone in the world.

I wanted to show how that's emerging here in China, and that there are pockets of cultural development that are relatable to the West. The rise of hip hop and punk rock, fashion designers that are hitting the global stage—this is all happening, but I wanted to tell it in an authentic voice. That's why I wanted to start Radii. I think it’s necessary, and we need more of this.

Hear more about Brian Wong in the latest episode of China From All Angles, a podcast brought to you in a collaboration between East West Bank and Radii. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Podcasts, SoundCloud, and 小宇宙.