Linking Internet leaders like Jack Ma with Chairman Mao
SHENZHEN, China — Most of us are reluctant to talk politics in business meetings. Obviously for foreigners visiting China, that goes double. In particular, we’re careful not to bring up anything related to China’s political past…such as the Cultural Revolution.
And yet, I’ve seen the taboo broken — at an industry forum last week in Dongguan. During the tail end of a presentation, I saw a slide, projected on large screens in a conference room, that read “Internet Philosophy vs. Mao Zedong Philosophy”.
And I thought, “Holy Kuomintang, Batman!”
It was but a moment. The presenter never dwelled on the delicate subject and he moved on quickly.
Nevertheless, that single slide drew from the Chinese audience in the room (I think I was the only foreigner there) a moment of nervous laughter, a few murmurs and a lot of curious expressions.
By pairing Internet companies — symbolizing China’s bright future – with Mao, who represents China’s dark past, the slide’s author (whoever he was) boldly connected the dots between China’s current infatuation with “Internet philosophy” and China’s past immersion in Mao Zedong’s little red book and its cult of personality.
Knowing that China’s Internet giants — Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Xiaomi — have attracted so much adulation from the Chinese people and media, this struck me as an unusually creative narrative.
The point-by-point comparisons of Internet giants and Mao Zedong were spot on.
For someone like me who isn’t versed in Mao’s philosophy, some points still made more sense than others, however.
It turns out the author of the Mao/Internet listicle was a blogger named Wuhui Wei. His piece has been making the rounds in Chinese social media for some time.
Following is a rough translation of listicles on Internet philosophy vs. Mao’s Philosophy:
- Focus on “middle to lower class” (Internet) vs. focus on “farmers” (Mao)
- Creation of “fans” (Internet) vs. creation of “party members” (Mao)
- Battle over “moral values and functions” (Internet) vs. “internal fight over direction” (Mao)
- “Must-have” mentality (Internet) vs. “fight with lords to appropriate farmland” (Mao)
- “Down-to-earth” language that values authenticity (Internet) vs. “the vernacular of the masses” (Mao)
- “Quick comebacks and counter attacks” (Internet) vs. “surround the city from the countryside” (Mao)
- “The user is always the center” (Internet) vs. “serve the people (Mao)
- Fanatical focus on “faster iterations” of new products/technologies (Internet) vs. “Win or lose, take decisive action first, win the battle long term” (Mao)
- Belief in “perfection” (Internet) vs. faith in pure “communism” (Mao)
- Promotion of “Big data” (Internet) vs. the “planned economy” (Mao)
- “Close the loop” (Internet) vs. “united front” (Mao)
- “Trial and error” (Internet) vs. the national experiment of “Cultural Revolution” (Mao)
The slide, perhaps created with a sly tone of self-mockery, suggests the two philosophies don’t exactly stand at polar opposites. They actually share similar values and are, at several points, almost identical.
Common threads that link Internet leaders like Jack Ma with Chairman Mao include a faith in the power of the masses, a conscious effort to speak in down-to-earth, authentic language, a knowledge of how to exploit herd mentality and the dogged pursuit of a “must win/must have” mentality.
Both ideologies stress the importance of putting people (users) at the center of the “revolution.” Neither is afraid of making errors. Win or lose, both movements believe in taking action first and improving results later.
Take the example of Xiaomi.
Xiaomi’s founders, who call their firm an “Internet Company,” have been vocal about strategy. They cut out middlemen, sell directly via their own online portal, and create and manage an almost cult-like following. Xiaomi is also known to perfect products in a series of rapid fire iterations -- even after initial launch.
Let’s make it clear. For many Chinese, China’s Internet giants today are their pride and joy.
Some of the most innovative online services were created by these Internet companies, and they have literally changed people’s lives.
For billions of Chinese, the everyday life is inextricably linked to Weibo, WeChat, Taobao, online mobile payment and other Internet connections.
Surely, China’s Internet giants have helped China get out of the rut that defined their 20th Century and defined China as a “knock-off nation.”
Most significantly, China’s Internet giants today have their consumers on their side. Internet companies exert almost limitless power and influence in China. Not a day goes by without some local Chinese reminding me how important it is to have a “partnership” or a “relationship” with those Internet giants.
I’m happy to learn that China’s Internet companies have grown so rapidly and so rich.
But maybe it’s time for us in the (Western) peanut gallery to take a break from our constant cheerleading for the Chinese miracle and its Mao-like uniformity. In a democracy which has never described China, the dissenting voice rings loud and clear.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times