By his own admission, Bill Gates was never the trendy one when comparisons were drawn with his industry rival Steve Jobs.
But now, the founder of Microsoft is even less cool in the eyes of many Chinese netizens. That’s after he appeared to cosy up to the Chinese government at the Boao Forum in Hainan this week.
Speaking on the subject of ‘Investment for the Poor’ last Sunday, Gates lavished praise on China for the dramatic expansion of its economy and its achievements in reducing poverty and increasing agricultural yields.
“There are many lessons out of this success that would be valuable to other countries,” Gates said in a speech peppered with words such as “amazing” and “incredible”. One example: China’s success in fighting poverty was “the greatest achievement in human history,” Gates suggested.
That may not sound too controversial: China has lifted more people out of poverty over the shortest period of any country in history.
But netizens were less impressed with the glowing endorsement from Gates. Instead, many deemed him to be flattering Beijing, and not seeing the whole picture.
“Where does he get his information from? Does he only watch CCTV?” asked one Sina Weibo user from Guangdong.
Other users accused Gates of “flirting” with the Chinese government in order to further Microsoft’s interests. “He is still a businessman at heart,” said one. Another asked: “Where are your moral standards?”
Both Gates and Jobs have traditionally enjoyed a positive image in China. The fact that they both dropped out of university is often held up as evidence that Chinese society – with its emphasis on getting a formal degree – has struggled to produce entrepreneurs like them.
But as readers of WiC will know, Apple has taken something of a beating in China recently, courtesy of a concerted attack by the state media (see issue 186, and page 6 this week).
Other contributors linked Gates’ speech to Apple’s experience, insinuating that foreign businesses need to ingratiate themselves with the country’s rulers. “Gates saw Apple’s fate and wanted to join the Party,” chuckled one weibo user.
A few people jumped to Gates’ defence too, saying that he was only being polite by focusing more on China’s achievements than its shortcomings – the environmental costs of its growth being a prime example of the latter – and that his true goal may have been to charm more Chinese billionaires into embracing philanthropy. “I hope you will agree with me that helping the poorest has value in itself,” Gates concluded in his speech, “not only here but in the world at large.”
But the story didn’t end at Boao. After the meeting wound up, state media unleashed an attack on Microsoft – albeit less fierce than Apple received. This time the criticism was levelled at the warranty on Microsoft’s tablet device. What to infer from this turn of events? Perhap that flattering Beijing is not the sure-thing strategy it used to be…
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