There is an old saw about advertising that only half of it works, but one never knows which half. And one suspects that despite all the data gathered and statistics generated, the online counterpart remains more art than science. Digital marketing involves navigating, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, a number of known unknowns: things that at least one knows one does not know. For Westerner marketeers, however, China is largely a haze of unknown unknowns, things one doesn’t even know one doesn’t know.

In mid-19th century China, after suffering multiple humbling defeats by imperial powers, a movement to modernize China’s military developed. The idea was that the national essence or culture of China could be better defended with superior Western methods and technology than outdated Chinese methods—seen as the extension of a static political culture. That the methods and technology were Western did not matter—they were not tied to the imperial aims which produced them; they could be adapted by anyone, and were essentially culture-less.

Jack Ma once described online shopping as a dessert in the United States, but the main course in China. That’s one of a set of key differences between developed-economy e-commerce and that of China, differences that escorted eBay out the Chinese door and kept Amazon as a minor player here, while the Alibaba Group has become the world’s largest retailer, the company with the largest IPO ever (US$25 billion in September 2014, though NTT DoCoMo’s 1998 IPO of $18.1 billion is about the same in current US dollar terms) and the nexus of around two-thirds of all parcels delivered in China. Writing for Harvard’s Working Knowledge in May 2014, Professors William Kirby and F Warren McFarlan assert that Alibaba “has done more for China’s small- and medium-sized enterprises than any government policy, ministry, or bank.”