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Ma made his first foray into environmentalism almost by accident. When Alibaba went public in 2007, he was accosted at a Hong Kong press conference by a pair of activists who pressed him to stop selling shark-fin soup online. (The growing market for the pricey delicacy, popular at Chinese banquets, is responsible for the bloody slaughter each year of millions of sharks, many of them members of endangered species.) "I didn't even know what the problem was," Ma says. "But I said I wouldn't eat it." After doing his own research, and with the support of Alibaba's employees, he decided to stop selling shark fin altogether. Though a growing number of other prominent Chinese, including former NBA star Yao Ming, have come out against shark fin, Ma's refusal still marks him as unusual. "If rich people don't eat shark fin, then the market will disappear," he says. "It was just a dumb promise I made, but then you start to believe it."
The shark-fin story fits Ma's almost innocent vision of environmentalism: countless individual actions adding up to real change. It's what you'd expect from an entrepreneur whose business success was built on empowering the individual. And it makes sense--Ma has always been more Internet evangelist than ordinary Chinese businessman. He's skeptical that the Chinese government can be pushed to change: "[It's] such a big organization, so hard to move. And the environmental situation is not something that can wait."
Already Ma is inspiring his peers to dig into their own pockets. In early May he announced that he and other Chinese businesspeople would raise up to $15 million for the China Global Conservation Fund, which pays for green projects in developing countries like Kenya and Brazil. Consider it a small contribution to balancing out China's enormous impact on the global environment as its economy grows beyond its borders.
But China's biggest environmental woes are at home--and sometimes, when the Beijing smog settles in, they can seem unsolvable. Not to an Internet entrepreneur, though. "Forty years ago, Los Angeles was the same as us," Ma says, gesturing toward the Santa Monica sky. "If they can fix it, why can't we? And if we do it smart and we take it seriously, we can do it even quicker."