A Tale of Tall Poppying

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Who can forget the Chinese government’s derailing of the blockbuster $37 billion (Initial public offering) IPO of Ant Group, the Chinese payment and fintech giant in 2020? Acting like a bank without being regulated like a bank and competing with state-owned banks and other financial institutions in China, Ant Group, an affiliate of Alibaba Group, began to change the way many in China, save, borrow, spend, and invest in the second decade of the twenty-first century even though it was founded only in 2014. In short, Ant Group has redefined people’s relationships with money in China. 

The man responsible for these revolutionary changes in China is Jack Ma, one of China’s most popular entrepreneurs who founded the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Limited, also known as Alibaba, in 1999. Jack Ma who is instrumental in reconceiving the Chinese economy in the last two decades is the largest individual shareholder of Ant Group.

Jack Ma Alibaba Group
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group is one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in China.

Surpassing the previous record of the $29.4 billion IPO of the state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil, Saudi Aramco, Ant Group’s IPO was to be the biggest IPO of all time. The stock issuance was to take place at Shanghai and Hong Kong Stock Exchanges. On 3 November 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping torpedoed the IPO by instructing the regulators to investigate the risks posed by Jack Ma’s financial and technological empire. Consequently, the IPO was cancelled. Why did President Xi Jinping torpedo the IPO? Keeping the political and economic dynamics and implications of the issue aside, we may look upon the event as an instance of ‘tall poppying’— a concept in psychology that needs elucidation.  

Tall poppying reminds us of the exploits of king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus who ruled Rome from 534 to 510 BCE. By assassinating his predecessor brutally and eliminating all his opponents tactfully, Superbus became the king of Rome. Soon after assuming the throne, he set out on an imperialist mission during which he made a few unsuccessful attempts to annex the town of Gabii situated about 18 km to the east of Rome. When he realised that the resistance of the people of the town was too strong for him to break, he sent his son, Sextus Tarquinius to the city disguised as a fugitive running away from his father’s ire. The people of Gabii not only gave him refuge but also made him eventually a commander of their army. After he took charge and rose to the office of a powerful commander of their army, he sent a messenger to his father and king asking him what he should do next. 

Tarquinius Superbus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Tarquinius Superbus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Instead of answering the messenger directly and verbally, Superbus took him into his poppy garden, took a stick, and swept it across the garden cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies in the garden. The messenger returned to Gabii and reported to Sextus what he had witnessed. Sextus understood instantly his father’s command, i.e., to eliminate all the most eminent people of Gabii with immediate effect. Without wasting time, Sextus began accusing every prominent person in the town of one fabricated offence after another and getting them executed leaving the town defenceless and vulnerable to the Romans who came and took it over. 

A noticeably successful person whose distinction, quality and competence make other people envious or hostile towards them is referred to as a tall poppy. The research conducted by the Australian psychologist, Norman T Feather, among high school and university students in Australia in 1987 revealed that when tall poppies failed or performed poorly in exams, their peers were more pleased than when average achievers failed or performed poorly in exams. However, Feather also noticed that the participants in the study were more pleased with the fall of the tall poppies to a mid-level of performance scale rather than to the bottom. 

The research conducted by the Australian psychologist, Norman T Feather, among high school and university students in Australia in 1987 revealed that when tall poppies failed or performed poorly in exams, their peers were more pleased than when average achievers failed or performed poorly in exams.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a term commonly used in Australia referring to the notion that poppies should grow together, and if one grows taller than the rest, it is to be cut down to size. Australians refer to successful people as ‘tall poppies,’ and they refer to the act of cutting tall poppies down to size as ‘tall poppying.’ In general, people like to see high performers and achievers to their average level of performance and achievement. Such an attitude in psychology is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS). The propensity to prevent potentially successful people from attaining success and the predilection to begrudge, resent, or mock people who succeed, who have talent, who have achieved certain status and so on are manifestations of Tall Poppy Syndrome.  

Right through the second decade of the twenty-first century, the popularity of Jack Ma, the most successful entrepreneur and the richest man in China, was such that foreign political and business leaders visiting China would make appointments for Jack Ma to meet them. As a much-loved rockstar and actor in short films, the most recognisable global ambassador of the brand China, the face of Chinese innovation, and the game-changer in the Chinese economy, his reputation was too much for the Chinese government authorities to come to terms with. Jack Ma had become a tall poppy.  

President Xi Jinping of China
President Xi Jinping of China.

During the second Bund Summit in Shanghai on 24 October 2020, the tall poppy in Jack Ma questioned the relevance of the Chinese financial and regulatory system based on the Basel Accord, the global banking regulation agreement set by the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision (BCBS). He called for technology-based refurbishment and innovation in the financial services in China so that they can be extended more easily and efficiently to smaller firms and individuals. He insisted that the future financial system should be inclusive, sustainable and green. He challenged and criticised the Chinese regulators for stifling innovation and banks for what he called their ‘pawnshop mentality.’ He dared to place the interest of private enterprise above that of the state — an economic model opposed to that of President Xi Jinping’s vision of economics for China. Jack Ma’s speech that day was the manifestation of the power and popularity he enjoyed in China, a country that does not allow more than one power centre, especially with Xi Jinping at the helm of things in the country. Jack Ma’s audience that day included personnel from the Chinese financial regulatory and political establishments.   

With his criticism of the Chinese authorities, Jack Ma fell out of favour with them, especially President Xi Jinping, who seems to have been waiting for an opportunity to contain the man whose image had grown larger than life in China. Xi Jinping, the man who harbours dreams of crafting a larger-than-life image for himself in Chinese society, would not tolerate another larger-than-life individual in any version. Since he was appointed General Secretary of the Community Party of China (CPC) in 2012, Xi Jinping kept consolidating his power over the party, the Chinese legislature and society like Chairman Mao Zedong did in the past. Under his leadership, in 2013, CPC issued the ‘Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,’ also known as Document NO 9, a document warning about seven dangerous western values to all the members of CPC. These seven dangers included western constitutional democracy, Universal values (of human rights), civil society, neoliberalism, media independence, historical nihilism that criticises CPC’s past, and questioning the socialist nature of the People’s Republic of China. Alongside many other changes that ensured his firm grip over the party and in turn Chinese society and government, he brought about constitutional changes removing the limit on the presidency to two terms. This change enables Xi Jinping (due to step down in 2023) to become the president for the third term. The National People’s Congress’ approval of Xi Jinping’s third term is a foregone conclusion, and he can remain president for life if he wishes. In 2018, he also managed to get the preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China amended to include ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ his political philosophy. Jack Ma’s ill-fated speech provided Xi Jinping with the most opportune moment for toll poppying him. 

Insisting that the company restructure its operations, the regulatory authority laid down a five-point compliance agenda for it to comply with. Once valued by investors as a company worth $300 billion, Ant Group is now valued as worth less than $30 billion. The term, ‘rectification’ turned out to be a euphemistic term for the annihilation of Ant Group and the tall poppying of Jack Ma.

Within two weeks of Jack Ma’s criticism, on 3 November 2020, Xi Jinping aborted the IPO by instructing the regulators to investigate the risks posed by Jack Ma’s financial and technological empire. Under President Xi Jinping’s instruction, Ant Group which so far enjoyed a lenient regulatory environment was asked to undergo a ‘rectification’ process which implied that the company was to ‘rectify’ its regulatory violations by subjecting itself to the financial regulations that supervise traditional banks. Insisting that the company restructure its operations, the regulatory authority laid down a five-point compliance agenda for it to comply with. Once valued by investors as a company worth $300 billion, Ant Group is now valued as worth less than $30 billion. The term, ‘rectification’ turned out to be a euphemistic term for the annihilation of Ant Group and the tall poppying of Jack Ma. Even though Jack Ma owns more than 50% of the shares of Ant Group, he had to relinquish his executive role in the firm. Soon after the halting of the IPO, Jack Ma disappeared from the public and retreated into the shadows. Xi Jinping tall poppied Jack Ma successfully. 

Tall poppy syndrome is quite common in every society and institution. Perhaps everyone is susceptible to it in some way or the other. When a person is successful or is perceived as capable of succeeding in any field, they become the object of jealousy, hatred, and anger because their success makes the limitations and even failures of others around them more manifest by contrast. Feather’s 1989 study conducted on Australia’s general population’s attitude towards tall poppies revealed that people who had more negative and envious attitudes towards tall poppies not only suffered from lower self-esteem than those who had more positive and appreciative attitudes. In comparison to their more positive peers, they also attributed less importance to achievement and social power, “the ability to set standards, create norms and values that are deemed legitimate, desirable, and, best of all: normal,” as Peter Van Ham explains in his book, Social Power in International Politics.   

Feather argues that people with poor self-confidence and with a low or average level of self-confidence and competence identified less with tall poppies, and hence, they had a less positive attitude towards them. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem, self-confidence and competence identified themselves more with tall poppies, and hence, had a more positive attitude towards them.  Overcoming one’s tall poppy syndrome could work as an antidote to the many ills both of individuals and society. After all, who is so mature, strong, and content to stay out of the toxic clasp of the tall poppy syndrome? 

Images courtesy: Flickr, Wikimedia Commons.

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