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Alibaba, the biggest company you've never heard of

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Amazon and ebay may have become a part of our daily shopping experience, but they have still some catching up to do to equal the commercial clout of Alibaba. Alibaba is at the heart of the consumer boom in China and as such is already the largest and most important e-commerce business on the planet. It's only a matter of time before it goes public and sells shares. Canny investors are already preparing their war-chests.

If the average consumer is unfamiliar with the name, it is because Alibaba is more of a middle man, linking suppliers and retailers, a kind of Asiatic Del Boy Trotter, except without the incompetence. Although the company can be excused for murmuring a certain self-satisfied Chinese version of "lovely jubbly" given its phenomenal growth.

As a link between Chinese manufacturers and wholesalers and Western retailers they are already enormous, but Alibaba has its finger in numerous other pies. Their online retail outlet is Tao Bao, an auction site that is so successful that ebay gave up trying to compete with it in China. Alibaba has also positioned itself as a facilitator for Western companies who want to offer an online storefront for Chinese consumers.

Add in its ownership of AliPay, the Chinese version of Paypal, and its substantial shareholding in Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, and it is apparent that Alibaba has its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of the burgeoning Chinese economy.

In fact its influence and power must be causing a few raised eyebrows among China's conservative political establishment. Even with Chinese growth slowing gradually, by the end of the decade the Chinese economy is estimated to be larger than the American and European economies combined. By then, given its current resources, Alibaba might be the most powerful commercial corporation in the world, with the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook cowering in its shadow.

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