I’ll Tell You Why China Hasn’t Produced a Steve Jobs
By Robin Li
Robin Li is the chairman and CEO of Baidu.
As a successful tech entrepreneur, people are constantly asking me why China hasn’t produced a Steve Jobs.
Many have offered their theories on this vital question. Some blame China’s emphasis on rote learning; others, the culture of imitation and lack of intellectual property protection. Some even point the finger at the Communist Party for stifling freedom of thought and expression.
While I love a good theory, none of these captures exactly why China hasn’t produced a Steve Jobs. But I’ve figured out the answer. And here I am, going on record, to share this with the world so we can finally put this question to rest.
Steve Jobs was born in 1955 to a Syrian father and a Swiss-American mother who met while both were enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A complicated family situation with his biological parents led him to be adopted at birth by the Jobs family, and was raised in a highly academic environment in California.
In 1972, Jobs enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but dropped out after six months though he continued to sit in on creative classes. Involvement with the developer of hit game Pong led him to a job with Atari, via a soul-searching soujourn to India.
In 1976, he co-founded the Apple Computer Company, was removed from power in 1985, but returned in 1996 to oversee a complete overhaul of its creative philosophy. Many credit Jobs with the invention of the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone and, by extension, the tablet device. At the time of his death in 2011 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, he was among the world’s most influential people.
So why, you may ask, hasn’t China produced a Steve Jobs?
Today’s China is a dynamic business environment, with huge investments in education and the tech sector—both key factors in Jobs’ success. Young Chinese are exposed to a broader cultural environment than any previous generation, and are developing opinions, vision and principles independently of the rigid school system, much like Jobs in his youth.
Many Chinese billionaires, myself included, come from humble backgrounds and built their companies through a unique comprehension of the marketplace combined with a shrewd approach to business.
So far, so Steve Jobs, you might think.
But there’s one key element that, while perhaps trivial to the untrained eye, means everything when explaining why China has not produced a Steve Jobs.
It is this: the chances of the precise DNA combination that resulted in Steve Jobs’ conception are minuscule.
While there is a 100% probability that Jobs himself was born, the chances of creating a genetically, culturally and intellectually identical human being with all the characteristics of the original, down to the Issey Miyake turtleneck sweater, are so close to zero they are statistically meaningless.
When applied to China, a political construct on the other side of the world from California, the odds become even more remote.
According to a Baidu search, of the ethnically Syrian men known to be living in China, none of them has a Swiss-American spouse. Even if we expand our scope to include couples who might potentially move to China in the future, there are only three known Syrian-and-Swiss-American couples worldwide. Only two of these involve a Syrian man and a Swiss-American woman, and none of these individuals share the same genetic material as Jobs’ biological parents.
You see where this is going, right?
As CEO of Baidu, my fidelity is always to the data first and the hypotheses second. Before we even get into the probability of the biological child of some theoretical mixed-race couple being adopted by another couple surnamed Jobs, we can see the numbers just don’t add up.
Combine this with the fact that there are no Chinese couples with the surname Jobs, or even a close Chinese equivalent, we can deduce that, even if we selected a Chinese child with the same genetic material as the man himself, put him through an identical childhood in California and then through the same college experience, at the end of the day, even if he went on to found the next tech revolution, he would still not be Steve Jobs.
And here, my friends, is the final, insurmountable stumbling block. Until a Chinese national formally changes their name to Steve Jobs, and has said change recognized by the state, China will never produce a Steve Jobs. Ma Yun? Sure. Li Yanhong? Sure. But Steven Paul Jobs? Not likely.
How intriguing that everyone in China, male and female, has the power to become a Steve Jobs and yet, at the same time, none of us has taken the step to actually become a Steve Jobs. And perhaps nobody ever will.
My critics will say that this was a reductive answer to a reductive question. But this brand of logical yet out-of-the-box thinking is how I got to where I am today.
Even so, I am left to face the irrefutable fact that, even if more Chinese thought the way I do, we’d still be no closer to an actual Steve Jobs.