China's Steve Jobs Debate and Deng Xiaoping

In China, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is selling like Szechuan dumplings, and Jobs' death has sparked a discussion among Chinese on whether China could ever produce a Jobs. In fact, they did -- and his name was Deng Xiaoping.

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(photo credit:  Steve Clemons)

Flying from Xian to Beijing this week, I spotted the books above at the airport book shop.  They were the marquis offering in the place -- front, center of the store.  On my plane, three Chinese folks carried the Chinese version of Walter Isaacson's illuminating biography of the iconic Steve Jobs; two in economy class, one business.

In Beijing, billboards advertising Isaacson's book appear at many bus stops  (I've seen a lot from our bus window).  And amongst those my colleagues and I have spoken to, the Chinese seem to be asking themselves and discussing whether they could ever produce a Steve Jobs.

I'm not sure whether even the US can easily produce another Steve Jobs -- though I instinctively feel that America generally allows for the emergence of brilliance more than China.  Nonetheless, after a few days meeting a few of China's IT entrepreneurs, I think the gap between the US and China on this front is narrowing.

But one of the things I find odd is that the Chinese basically have a person who is their Steve Jobs.  I don't mean someone who created a line of products that we have all become addicted to and which have changed our world -- but rather a leader who saw a future, went against the tide, and used the levers of influence he had to gamble on a complete retro-fitting and relaunch of China.  I'm talking of course about Deng Xiaoping.

Several weeks before Steve Jobs' death, I had the privilege of listening to Walter Isaacson share with a small number of people what some of the key themes and findings of his book would be.  We were sworn to secrecy then on the details of the book he was sharing -- but something he said and which rings in my head is that there is a difference between 'brilliance' and 'genius.'

Isaacson said that geniuses don't always prevail; they can be impractical and ultimately irrelevant in their eccentricities.  Their genius may never get an on-ramp to impact.  It's those like Steve Jobs who may not be geniuses but may be brilliant at an entirely different level who really change the world in remarkable ways.

I think Isaacson's insight is important.  Deng Xiaoping said "cross the river by feeling the stones," meaning that even though China was moving forward in new directions -- it needed to stay grounded, incremental, feel its way forward even amidst uncertainty.

Deng Xiaoping didn't have it all figured out; he was someone who packaged and enabled China to grow -- and he used the ideas, even the genius, of others who understood markets better than he did to create the dramatic shift in China's fortunes that we see today.

The other biography that should be on China's reading list next to Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs is the recently released Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel.

Certainly no one in the current Chinese leadership appears to have the talent and latitude to punctuate Chinese history as definitively as Deng Xiaoping -- and in America, we don't see the likes of Steve Jobs too often either.  Both had their dark sides and moments -- but they were brilliant and both changed the world and more importantly, the expectations of people about what may yet still be possible.

I'm an outsider over here in Beijing, but my response to the Chinese who lament whether or not they could ever produce a Steve Jobs is that they actually did.  His name was Deng.

(For those interested, here is my interview with Ezra Vogel about the life and deeds of Deng Xiaoping held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and organized by The Atlantic and the New America Foundation.)