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February 1, 2010 / Mike Su

We’re Doing It Wrong; Why Apple = China

I’m worried. Worried that we’re totally screwing it up. We’re at a point where technology is perhaps the most powerful tool for influence and change available to us, but we can’t get out of our own way. Google’s self-righteous stand against the Chinese government, followed recently by Evan Williams’ declaration of twitter’s intent to circumvent the Great Firewall to me just demonstrates an utter lack of understanding for how to get things done in China. It reflects an approach that values a sense of righteousness over the results that that righteousness demands. It’s more important to feel right than to actually make things right.

It’s easy to sit over here on this side of the world and look down upon the spotty human rights track record of China and turn one’s nose down in disgust. However, whether it’s in marriage, business, politics or friendships, I have never seen a lasting resolution to differences of philosophy come without first having empathy for the other person’s viewpoint. Shouting louder or pushing harder may give way to temporary change, but it lacks the conviction to make that change lasting.

Apple or China?

So, how do we better understand why China does the things it does? Well, the easiest way for me to think about it is China = Apple/iPhone, and US = Android (or Windows). With Apple, Steve Jobs decides what apps are good for us. It sucks, people get frustrated, but in the end Jobs does this because he believes he’s delivering what’s best. With an iPhone, you don’t have to worry about porn, about malware and trojans. You don’t have to worry about accidentally installing some major resource hog. But you can’t run background tasks, you can’t run Google Voice (until now). Likewise, China makes decisions based on what it thinks are best for the country at large. China looks to the west and sees porn, gun proliferation, Columbine, Lindsay Lohan, and it says thanks, but no thanks, much like Jobs looks at Android and says thanks, but no thanks.

I’m not excusing China, but most of the people shaking their fists at the East think that China’s citizens are as a whole suffering under an oppressive regime, and that’s simply not true. There are things that are definitely very wrong, but there are also things that are working. Very well, in fact. So when the government moves millions of people out of their homes to build a dam, or run a major crime sweep that may net some innocent people, many Chinese would look at the progress and feel that it is an acceptable tradeoff. Calvin Chin eloquently summarizes this general sentiment in his recent post on TechCrunch.

Ok, so *besides* him

Another important point to understand is that the US views its role on the global stage as the world’s police – if we don’t stand up for what’s right, who will? Meanwhile, China has always been an introverted country – I’ll mind my business and you mind yours. And let’s be honest, aside from a crazy Mongol named Genghis Kahn, the West has had a far worse track record when it comes to global interaction (the Crusades, Christopher Columbus and the Indians, the list goes on and on).

Again, I’m not saying it’s right, just saying that it’s important for us to come from a place of empathy rather than a place of judgment. Besides, we’re not that far removed from slavery, racism, spying on our own citizens, and we’re still the leading polluter (per capita) in the world. We still have major issues with crime and poverty. So before we point out that speck in our brother’s eye, let’s not forget the plank in our own. I’m not saying there’s not a problem, I’m just saying we’re going about it the wrong way.

p.s. For the record, I use an iPhone but am pissed about the whole Google Voice debacle and believe that in the long run I will be using an Android device.

p.p.s. The irony that I’m writing about this on a WordPress blog, which is blocked by the Great Firewall, is not lost on me.



Leave a Comment
  1. Calvin Chin / Feb 1 2010 8:34 pm

    Great analogy and hopefully one that will resonate with some people out there.

    I understand where Google is coming from. While openness and not being evil is the culture, it’s also fundamental to their business that people and businesses trust them with more and more of their data. Maybe they should’ve been more diplomatic in how they made this move, but maybe they’ve given themselves less negotiating room with the Chinese on purpose.

    It’s tough to say where things will shake out, but it’s a good thing to have some people pushing China to be more free. My point and I think yours is that don’t be surprised when people push back and maybe you can spent a moment or two understanding why they might.

    • aproductguy / Feb 2 2010 10:51 am

      Hey Calvin,

      Totally agree. I completely understand where Google is coming from, but the way they go about it, and the way the US in general goes about China, seems to show a lack of understanding of how to get things done. The way they did it leaves, as they say in China, “no way to exit the stage gracefully”. It signals “I’m right, you’re wrong” and the only possible resolution is that one side admits to being wrong rather than reaching some compromise that can lead towards the desired outcome.

  2. Rick Martin / Feb 2 2010 6:44 am

    Ok, so we’re going about it the wrong way, huh?

    How about for your next trick, you suggest how we (and Google) should approach China? Something a little concrete would be awesome.

    • aproductguy / Feb 2 2010 11:00 am

      Well, the important thing I think is to first start from a place of understanding. The way Google has done it now leaves little room for compromise. Basically, they’ve called out the Chinese government, so either the Chinese government acknowledges wrong-doing and acknowledges censorship is wrong, or they tell Google to shove it. Given that the Chinese government is willing to move millions of people to build a damn, shut down factories and stop people from driving to clean the air for the Olympics, it seems unlikely that they will crater and apologize or grovel to beg Google to come back. I personally believe that the negotiation should not be waged in public, but rather through back channel negotiations. Also, if you acknowledge the fact that China has some logical reason for doing things the way they do it (much like Apple does, even if you don’t agree with how they’re doing it), then you will have more patience and commitment to work things out on a longer time horizon. That said, Google may just be pissed because their intellectual property was at stake, which is a different story. But what I’ve said above still applies to how I feel tech companies should approach working in China.

  3. Bri / Feb 2 2010 9:00 am

    Interesting analogy. If china=apple, are we the customer? Personally I love the fact that I can choose between an iPhone/Apple and Android/Google. Sounds like you like having that choice too. Makes me think the average Chinese citizen would like choices also… and I’m not just talking search engines…

    • aproductguy / Feb 2 2010 11:17 am

      Chinese citizens are the customer, and China makes decisions on behalf of its citizens, just like Jobs decides what’s best for the users.

      As for choices – I’m not disagreeing with the need for choices or how much I like em. But the question is the best way to go about it. In the US, we tend to say, “we’re right, you’re wrong, you should come to your senses and do it our way.” Imagine, for a moment, if China were to start branches of companies in the US, and start to slowly try to promote communism or internet censorship. Seems absurd, right? Well, to the Chinese, that’s what it feels like. They’re not doing things the way they do them because they want to screw their citizens, they’re doing it because they think that’s the best thing for their society. Our approach is too overbearing in my opinion, and does not acknowledge the fact that two people with the same desire may arrive at different implementations (Apple vs. Google). So, I think we need to reevaluate how we go about our diplomacy as technology companies and as a country. It seems like we’re more concerned with being acknowledged as right, than to achieve the right result.

      • bri / Feb 2 2010 2:47 pm

        gotcha. i think i agree that our current diplomatic strategy is not destined for success. i do wonder, though, about the whole “They’re not doing things the way they do them because they want to screw their citizens, they’re doing it because they think that’s the best thing for their society.” thing. From the outside, it looks like they (and by ‘they’ i mean the government) are equating maintaining control with what is best for their society. that doesn’t look like a slam dunk to me. too conveniently beneficial for Politburo Committee Members, if you know what i mean. and by the way, this is not exclusvely a Chinese issue. i would say the same thing about the UK and their video surveillance, or the USA with their warrantless wiretaps…

        as a side note, google pulling out of china would be the surest way to ensure the future mediocrity of baidu. i know this just like i know my time warner cable box will continue to suck at least until the moment verizon finally runs some fiber into my neighborhood. 🙂

  4. Dianna Lai / May 13 2010 9:31 am

    you will not believe how happy i was to read this post. i am ill from hearing anti-chinese rhetoric and eurocentric propaganda. it seems too difficult a task for people to try and understand why certain things are done in a particular way. the only way for people to begin to make sense of foreign policies and values is to denounce and ridicule them. as a result of this eurocentric bull, communism has become such a bad word, so taboo, yet most people don’t have the slightest clue what it’s about. is the concept of doing what’s best for the general good and well-being of the people so difficult to grasp? you’re right – we could all use a little more empathy and understanding in this world. it’s important to accept that you cannot impose your own views and beliefs onto someone else, and at the same time, you cannot expect that something that works for one country will necessarily work for another.

    i’ll stop myself before i rant any further. just wanted to thank you for showing the flip side of the coin and tell you that your iphone/android analogy was bomb diggity.

  5. timewilltell / Mar 16 2011 2:34 pm

    So Steve Jobs is limiting what we can use to the tune of 100X as many apps as on any other mobile platform. What a dictator.

    • aproductguy / Mar 22 2011 10:32 pm

      you’re missing the point. or making my point – china is making decisions and also pointing to their remarkable economic growth as justification. the world is not so black or white, and there’s not one answer to all problems, and each is often fraught with its own merits and problems.

  6. Alexei / Aug 10 2011 2:14 am

    Oh yes, ends justify the means, for the Chinese Politburo.
    Other guys with the same mindset come to mind, with noble (in their opinion) goals – Hitler, that recent Norwegian mass killer too.

    They just have to do what they have to do, who are we to criticize.
    Moral relativism at its best, i mean – worst.

    • Mike Su / Sep 6 2011 4:15 pm

      I think you’re missing the point. I’m not justifying China’s actions, but the whole point is to understand where they’re coming from before we lambast them. We may be right, but if we don’t influence change, does it matter? Screaming at the top of our lungs isn’t an effective way to win friends and influence people. Begin with understanding.


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