Why China doesn’t have its own Steve Jobs

| November 29th, 2011

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(The commentary by Qiulin 邱林, translated from caixin.cn)

As millions of Chinese netizens mourned over Steve Jobs’ death, they also raised a question – why couldn’t China produce its own “Steve Jobs”? Former vice-president of Google global and president of Google China Kai-fu Lee explained on his weibo that it was because Chinese education puts too much emphasis on reciting and memorizing stuff instead of fostering critical thinking. He pointed out that it wasn’t that Chinese people are not smart enough, nor was the lack of people with the potential to become a “Steve Jobs” since there are pioneers of this sort, such as co-founder of Yahoo! Inc. Jerry Yang and co-founder of Youtube Steve Chan.

Kai-fu Lee has his points. In fact, Chinese people are not stupid, then why couldn’t we see any innovation big shots like Steve Jobs here in China? A survey carried out by a famous website (original article didn’t provide the source) has founded that 63.3% people believe there won’t be figure like Steve Jobs under the present China condition, 28.9% people think there is not even a chance for it, only 7.8% people think chances might exist in 20 years or so. Although the survey didn’t mean much, still it is worth pondering upon.

Generally speaking, there are too many restrictions and interventions for the growth of great innovators like Jobs. For one, herd behavior is extremely significant among Chinese, those who go against mainstream opinions will be edged out; for another, there is not enough protection over intellectual property rights, some innovators exerts time and money in developing their “genius” products only to be plagiarized in a few days; and thirdly, the pressure to survive is too huge that very few people will do something completely out of personal interest.

But Jobs who grew up in the US didn’t have to face any of the above influences.  Some people comment on Jobs like this: he has the astonishing capability to find out what should exist but hasn’t exist yet, he can combine the appropriate technology with unimaginative aesthetic elements to produce enormous charm. That sets the ground stone for Apple to become one of the top enterprises in the world.

About a decade ago, Apple was in so much trouble that when Jobs came back in 1997 the company has already experienced corporate deficit of $18.6 billion two years in a roll. It was practically at the brink of bankruptcy. Then Jobs stepped in and started a series of revolutions revolving the development of new products. Up until June this year, Apple’s cash flow and marketable securities have reached $76.1 billion while the gross operating cash flow of America Treasury was $73.77 billion as of July this year. That said, Apple is almost as rich as the country.

People notice that every new product launch by Steve Jobs would generate global attention and anticipation because every new product he introduced will in one way or another change the structure of an industry or the mode of a business. Perhaps this is the biggest gap between Chinese IT/Internet companies and their American counterparts. Chinese enterprises base their judgments and decisions entirely on the market and consumers, they only manage to follow market trends at best, hardly able to make any radical innovations.  They don’t want to fall behind nor go too ahead, so they often let others to take the bullet as a path finder, and follow closely once the situation looks good. Many Chinese enterprises flourish in this way.

In the end of the day, the problem boils down to our faithlessness in deciding and utilizing our own ability. Therefore it is impossible for Chinese enterprises to create a market trend and take the lead.

Moreover, one of the most obvious features of Apple is that it became the world’s most valuable corporation without the help of governments. Whereas there is no such soil in China to grow that kind of company. In fact, the monopoly created by state-owned enterprises is down right political monopoly, which limits competition, hampers technological upgrade, reduces the efficiency of resource allocation and intervenes with the competitive market order etc.

Another huge obstacle comes from our policy. Many private-owned enterprises similar to Apple don’t have the chance to grow at all, they seldom make it to the Fortune 500 list. Among all countries that adopt market economy, China is one of the few that allocate public resources and political resources according to systems of ownership: state-owned enterprises, foreign-invested enterprises and private-owned enterprises enjoy totally different political treatment.

Perhaps this is the ultimate reasons why China fails to produce people like Steve Jobs or enterprises like Apple. Chinese scientist Qian Xueshen raised the famous question when he was dying: “Why on earth can’t China foster outstanding people?” Nowadays when Jobs is also part of the history, many netizens start calling out “where is Chinese Steve Jobs?”.

Of course it is not strange that China couldn’t produce “Steve Jobs”, because Jobs has paranoia who brings Apple to what it is today. When there is someone who has the same paranoia in China, then the Chinese Apple will born. It may seems unbelievable, but that is the core of the problem. To foster Chinese “Jobs”, we have to provide flexible soil and environment to those who need to take the path like Jobs even when they are paranoid. Otherwise, it is only empty hope for China to produce world’s top corporations like Apple.

32 Comments | Leave a comment | Comment feed

  1. shenmeniao says:

    There are probably hundreds of Chinese Steve Jobs. Because the concept of learning is eclipsed by being educated, most of the time a guy with Steve Jobs characteristics would be seen as houseless, jobless, apartmentless vagrant with impractical extreme ideas. Does the man make the environment or does the environment make the man?

  2. voiceofhomer says:

    Nobody likes a smartass Chinaman in China.

    And what Chinaman wants to be a Jobs anyways?

    Better to make fast money for oneself than to make something good for all the people.

    • Huzhang says:

      This is sadly accurate

      Most people want a work-a-day job that pays well but isn’t innovative or risky. So everyone tries to be an engineer or doctor and lawyer but not say, a theoretical physicist who may not find a job or get paid well. Plus Chinese parents will kill you if you drop out of college and start tinkering with shit in the backyard instead of getting a “normal” job. True most risk-takers don’t end up like Jobs, but statistically speaking, less risk-taking = less reward. Gotta think about the group, not the individual.

  3. sergius says:

    The problem is the way kids are brought up … chinese parents constantly teach their kids not to take risks … get a job get married and wait for your retirement fund. They will never let you take your own route. My parents had everything planned out for me and when i wanted to go and do my own business, all they told me was dun take risk .. just work your way up .. that’s why … chinese parents aren’t forward thinking enough … even parents now are the same, they assume that their kids will want to learn math, piano, etc etc .. but they never let their kids go out and explore their interests .. and also the truth is .. asian kids are pretty pampered …

    • referree says:

      it’s not just Chinese. It’s all Asian countries.

      “get a job get married and wait for your retirement fund”
      this is the same goes for Korea, Japan, China, and every other Asian country.

      Also, lack of creativity is not only a problem in China, but also a problem in other Asian countries as well. Take S.Korea Samsung for example. They copied everything the Apple Inc. produced.

  4. smackababy says:

    The reason China will never have its own Steve Jobs is because they’re a face-obsessed culture filled with people that value the saving face more than the concepts of thoughtful discourse or honest introspection.

    Oftentimes, they’ll even resort to using people like Jerry Yang and Steve Chen, two Taiwanese innovators that both immigrated to America before the age of ten and were ostensibly shaped by the culture there moreso than that of Taiwan or China, as examples of “Chinese visionaries”.

    • howard says:

      So true. Chinese people just CAN’T innovate. It’s simply not in their genes. It’s like teaching a monkey to do algebra. Why are all the world’s inventions created by WHITE westerners?

      Chinese, Blacks, Latinos, and Arabs have contributed nothing to this world except crime, indecency, and corruption.

      Chinaman steals your money, Blackman steals your woman or kills you, Latinos steal your car, and Arabs steal your freedom.

      If not for White men, this world would be shit.

      • smackababy says:

        I think you’re missing the point about my comment. It has nothing to do with race, it’s all about culture. The author presents her reasons for why she thinks China as a country (not the Chinese people) isn’t conducive to fostering a Steve Jobs-like visionary of their own, and I agree with most of them.

        Totally twisting my words. Unless you’re trolling… then I agree with you one hundred percent.

  5. Curren$y says:

    This shit has been going on for centuries. That’s why white people made guns while Chinese folks recited Confucian classics lol.

  6. vonskippy says:

    China (and Japan) graduate some of the finest parrots I’ve ever met.

    They make great technicians, but are completely clueless to why things work (unless they memorized that paragraph from a text book).

    We’ve had dozens of asian interns (from some of the top asian Uni’s) and not one of them could create a better solution to their task, come up with a process that saved time or money, etc. They were always on time, mostly polite, and followed directions to the letter.

    In other words, they were great lab drones, but none of them were ever offered a job after their internship was up.

    • voiceofhomer says:

      The Chinese make wonderful slaves, in other words.

      They do the job and let somebody else do the thinking.

  7. John Wayne says:

    China has many great inventors and business people comparable to Steve Jobs. The problem is once the inventor designed a beautiful and long lasting train or car, there are several middleman that seem to find ways to do the job halfass using subpar materials and construction. I have seen this first hand and asked WTF? Only to be told “it’s fine” “no problem” “works great”.

  8. Big Daddy says:

    Keep eating dog Korean guy.. Ha ha.
    They wont have a Jobs cause the dont have any balls and wont take chances

  9. Wonneproppen says:

    Steve Jobs grew up off the beaten track even for American and Californian standards. Dropped out of university, went to India to spend time with a maharaja, vegetarian, very unconventional and breaking most rules around….. a free spirit, way ahead of most.
    Try to imagine that in China and you have your answer.

  10. Mark says:

    There are lots of ex Steve Jobs in China they just had it beaten out of them by the time they started school, and if not then they jumped out of a school window, and if not then they were driven into exile or crushed by the CCP.

  11. vide says:

    Steve Jobs sucks, greedy asshole.

  12. Paul says:

    With 1.3 billion people, no doubt there are tons of geniuses. The problem is that China is a terrible place for entrepreneurs. You need lots of money and guanxi to get a great idea going. And even with cash and connections, there is always the chance some greedy government officials can step in to dip their hands. The last bit might not be true, but it is a popular perception, which discourages potential entrepreneurs from perusing their dreams.

  13. ray says:

    I would just like to know why no other country has produced another Steve Jobs.

  14. So Sad says:

    This article is correct. There’s no thinking outside the box. Chinese education and discipline enforces strict conformity. School does not teaches them how to think but rather to repeat what has been taught. The emphasis is on memorization like a robot on cue. Viewing from different angles is also frowned upon. This is why mainland China with it’s 1.5 billion people won’t ever produce another Steve Jobs unless something is changed. The chinese people have a lot of potential for creativity (chinese invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing press after all) but it is stifled and wasted due to communist government control over education and thinking.

  15. So Sad says:

    In order for China to produce a Chinese Steve Jobs massive political and social change must happen first. :

    1. There should be protection of intellectual property.
    2. Education must foster outside thinking and growth.
    3. Learn how to think outside the box.
    4. Government must support new and upcoming entrepreneur.
    5. Government must change it’s system of nation wide monopolies.
    6. Talents must be fostered and encouraged.

    .. these are just a few… if i were to list all of them it would probably fill several books.

  16. 老外 says:

    Hey korean_guy, I’ve decided to move to China for 4 years to study. Got any last rites?

  17. 老外 says:

    I might end up in a polluted city. :-( I cannot reconsider, nor will I.

    You should give me some advice on how to survive. Although I’ve already been to China twice, I could use more korean_guy advice.

  18. 老外 says:

    But I want to go :(

    That may be what I’m saying, but isn’t a condom good enough? Educate me on some… survival condoms, and I’ll 你好 TSB for you.

  19. shenmeniao says:

    Insightful penetrating points.
    Though cultural programming is hard to deviate from, there are always some exceptions. You are actually a prime example of this Korean_guy. To make the correlation that Steve Jobs is American so his success and persona resulted exclusively from being American is a Chinese generalization. Is it really that hard to follow your interests and address market demand with obvious solutions?
    quality>quantity
    minority>majority

  20. shenmeniao says:

    Ha, ok fine…

  21. shh says:

    As much as you dislike China and spew random aggressive obnoxious sentences, you often bring up good points (albeit exaggerated. stop using absolutes like “all” or “never” when you know they aren’t true) so this time I won’t .

    However, your loving defense of the United States is just a little too smarmy. exceptionalism? Steve Jobs (and Gates, and most of the other gurus of our era) is a clear outlier. He’s absolutely not indicative of the exceptionalism of the United States. By that logic, everyone who dropped out of school had great ideas and the ability to do something, based on the fact that they’re in the US. Perhaps we have such a climate for such an outlier to someday, possibly become successful, but I still think it’s just that: a freak accident. Most college dropouts are not nearly as successful.

    And we beat our kids to go to college too. You try suggesting to a teacher, peer, or guidance counselor that you want to go to trade school or start working instead of college. See how their face changes, their body language, the way they treat you, etc. We pressure our kids plenty to go to college.

  22. shenmeniao says:

    theres a difference between not knowing you stink and not caring…

    when everyone stinks, the one who smells like flowers is wrong.

  23. elenore says:

    That depends on your child and their abilities.2 of my children I would pressure to go to College.One I would tell go to trade school or start a business with College fund, or buy house in full.My parents pressure 2 of us to go to college.Sent 2 to Trade schools.One is stay at home parent married to School teacher.

  24. referree says:

    korean_guy! assuming your from S.Korea

    How about the creativity in your country? Didn’t Samsung copied what Apple Inc produced like the ipads, and iphones?

    I wouldn’t go so far to make this a racism issue as it appears that you are doing a good job at it in being obnoxious.

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