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Who Will be the Steve Jobs of China?

Apple’s products have so much influence in mainland China that its lawmakers fret openly about how to match the company’s innovations.

Once a year, 3,000 parliamentary representatives of the various districts of China meet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. This year some brought iPads, and many had iPhones – a must-have item among China’s urban elite. A few of these iOS-toting lawmakers asked: Where is the Apple Inc. of China?

Apple Store, Shanghai
(cc) HeyItsWilliam

To an American, it’s a silly question on its face. Apple is one-of-a-kind even in the country that spawned it – you might as well ask why Germany or Japan or even Cleveland lacks a company like Apple.

The question smacks of an almost cargo-cult mentality. It seems born of a notion that just because a country achieves the trappings of an information-age society – a certain level of economic productivity, an educated populace – it should automatically spawn everything that the largest pioneer of that sort of development already possesses.

China’s centralized bureaucracy, which always manages to issue pronouncements that sound exactly like they were written by engineers trapped in an autocratic state, even after being filtered through Xinhua and translated into English, has gone through analogous paroxysms of jealousy and self-doubt before.

Most memorably, perhaps, when the film Titanic swept the country. Until recently, it was the highest-grossing film in China ever. Its plot, in which a proletarian gets the girl, makes a fool of the scheming, elitist capitalists and dies a hero, seemed tailor-made to appeal to the Communist Party line. The then-president Jiang Zemin praised the film and challenged Chinese filmmakers to do better.

But of course you don’t get a film like Titanic or an object like the iPod simply by urging your comrades to work harder, as if you were trying to meet a quota for bushels of wheat or tons of iron. This is where every problem an industrial civilization might face begins to look like a nail to the hammer of centralized planning.

It’s absurd to think that anyone could simply will into existence Hollywood or Silicon Valley. They are their own peculiar, path-dependent phenomena, and anyway, they probably wouldn’t exist without tremendous waste and even inequality elsewhere in American society. In other words, even for what they are, the conditions that brought them about aren’t necessarily what everyone else should aspire to.

If China’s government really wants to spawn the next Apple – a company that proves that at least sometimes, the Great Man theory of history has yet to be completely disproved – it could require changes in China’s social fabric so monumental they would render the country’s political landscape almost unrecognizable.

Jobs was a Beatles-obsessed fruititarian hippy who returned from a pilgrimage to India to sell his Volkswagen bus to fund a startup that would create a computer he hoped would literally start a revolution. Can you possibly imagine a story that is any less possible in a country whose liberalization has so far been limited to a narrow vision of cynical, unconstrained hypercapitalism?

If China wants Apple, it may have to achieve democracy, transparency and an inversion of its citizens’ obeisance to hierarchy, first. It’s as simple as that.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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