In the 1980s Japanese manufacturers were clobbering their American competitors. Books like Japan as Number One by Harvard professor Ezra Vogel were bestsellers and ‘techno-nationalism’ was spreading in the political world. The term was coined by Robert Reich, who later became Bill Clinton’s labour minister, and called for American politicians to stand up to the challenge and repel Japanese firms.
More recently the same trend has been on the rise in China, as the country faces up to the shock of Washington sanctions that have knee-capped Chinese telecom giant ZTE. Although a temporary truce might have been reached last weekend (see this week’s economy section), social media has been brimming with chat ranging from the potential invasion of Taiwan (to take control of semiconductor giant TSMC, see WiC407) to more investment in homegrown chipmaking (see ARM story).
Paradoxically, Lenovo, a one-time icon of the domestic tech sector, has been singled out for unpatriotic behaviour. The brand has even been termed ‘China’s tech Judas’ over a row that dates back to 2016.
Why so? Because during a meeting that year aimed at influencing the future standard for 5G technology, Lenovo voted for a proposal tabled by American rival Qualcomm and against one by Chinese tech giant Huawei. Lenovo’s decision went largely unnoticed by the public until bloggers began to circulate an article last week titled “Lenovo, dare you to call yourself a patriotic firm”.
Penned by an industry insider, it accused Lenovo of “selling the country’s core interest” and claimed that it was the only Chinese firm that voted against Huawei during the conference two years ago. The article sparked a public outcry and Lenovo’s founder Liu Chuanzhi was forced to publish an open letter clarifying his company’s position.
There were three rounds of voting at the meeting, Liu explained. While Lenovo had indeed voted for Qualcomm in the first round because of patent concerns, it had favoured Huawei in the second round after taking into consideration the “national interest as a whole”.
“Both of us agreed that Chinese companies should be united and not torn apart by outsiders,” Liu wrote, referring to a conversation with Huawei’s boss Ren Zhengfei after the conference.
Liu has since received backing from other tech tycoons such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma. Yet this week Lenovo had to respond to another wave of vitriol by techno-nationalists. This time, the accusations centred on claims that Lenovo had picked Microsoft Windows over a domestically-developed Linux operating system (OS) in a recent government procurement programme.
Rattled by the media storm, Lenovo issued another statement on Tuesday, branding the allegations as “slander” and reiterating that it has always supported homegrown OS.
Another tech tycoon who finds himself on the receiving end of techno-nationalism is Luo Yonghao. The boss of smartphone maker Smartisan (see WiC396) is a fan of Japanese culture and in the past has shared his admiration online. Some of these weibo posts have now been offered as proof that Luo is a jingri, or a Chinese who is “spiritually Japanese”. In turn he has been hastily declaring his love of country to appease his local customers, especially as Smartisan is launching several new smartphones in the coming weeks.
One of his tactics is to bash Apple. During a launch event in Beijing last week, he said he had stopped using the iPhone because he thinks Apple “has lost its soul”. He then predicted that the Californian brand will “copy us like crazy” when it sees the homegrown innovation that Smartisan has adopted in its new models.
Smartisan’s tiny market share (about 0.1% of sales in China by WiC’s calculations) means that Tim Cook may not be too perturbed. But Luo has certainly been causing a stir, selling Rmb4.8 million ($751,000) of tickets to the 37,000 people that showed up to the Smartisan’s launch event where he dissed Apple and played up his patriotism.
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