Chapter Seven – Passage Six
“After Jack left the company last year,” Li says as she slices come carrots, “he really hasn’t been the same since then. It was a big blow being so publicly ousted from the very company his own father had built. They didn’t share much else but the company was one of the few things that was solely and truly theirs.”
“Was Jack and his father not close?” I ask. “I thought Weibook was a tightly controlled family affair.”
Li chuckles. “Weibook was a tightly controlled Yun Bao affair. Jack’s father had, let’s say, a very strong sense of direction of what Weibook should be and where it was destined to go.” Li finishes with the carrots and moves on to the onions. In the skillet, I smell the eggs and spinach already beginning to sizzle.
“You know,” Li continues, “while I know it was always reported in the media that the CCP wrested control of the company from Jack. But that’s not exactly how it happened. If Yun hadn’t set up the line of succession the way he had, Jack would’ve never lost control the way he had.”
“Despite all of his tussles with the communist regime over the years, Yun Bao was very much a man traditionally molded in the way of the old guard. A typical story of poor boy from a fisherman’s family in the rural provinces who rose from nothing to obtain everything.”
I chew on some butter toast and mull over what I’m hearing. Of course, I knew the broad strokes of the legendary Yun Bao story. Any technologist worth his salt knew at least the general outline. It was very much your typical rags to riches tale.
“But what you don’t hear in the oft-repeated tale,” explains Li, “is that in China, without the right help form the right people at the right time, Yun would’ve and could’ve never done it. Sure, part of it was luck. But it was also partially that he fit the right profile. Weibook happened at a time when the Chinese economy was finally beginning to slow. Having relied on rock-bottom wage labor to propel its massive double-digit rise in GDP year over year was unsustainable. If Xi was going to take China to the next level to the next level of economic prosperity, he could no longer do it on the back of knitting together Nike soccer balls and Abercrombie sweaters on the backs of, essentially, slave labor.”
I slowly put the pieces together in my head. In all fairness, if I hadn’t been feeling like a puddle of garbage run over by a cement truck at that moment, I probably would’ve been a bit sharper on my feet.
“So you’re saying,” I manage slowly, “that Jack had different ideas then. About cooperating with the CCP. And that was the source of the rift?”
Li pours the bowl of diced carrots and onions into the skillet and stirs around the egg yolk. The entire omelet slowly congeals, looking and smelling delicious. I get the feeling that she’s choosing her words carefully.
“Sure, Yun was certainly determined and possessed a tremendous work ethic,” Li finally says slowly, “there is no doubt about that. But he also caught China at an inflection point. Xi wished to shed China of its image as a predominantly manufacturing economy. The joke for generations had been that ‘Made in China’ was a sign of cheapness–”
“–Value,” I interject. “Let’s be gracious here.”
“Sure,” Li says. And while her expression remains unchanged, I can literally hear the eyerolling in her voice across the kitchen island from where I sit. “Value, let’s call it. And sure, poor people in developed countries who shopped in your bargain basement stores may have loved China for its value. But Xi dreamed big. He wanted China to be a country known for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’s. Not as the choice, go-to supplier of cheap goods sold to impoverished masses the world over.”
I thought about my own story growing up. With Devana when we were little, my mother would always take us shopping at the local Walmart in Ressler, the small rustbelt town we’d grown up in. When that Walmart Supercenter had arrived, it’d positively steamrolled everything in its path and within a year, all of the smaller mom and pop shops had been absolutely devastated leaving that single Walmart Supercenter as the sole shining beacon of hope in Ressler. As children, Devana and I had adored Walmart though. Everything was cheap! And because we often went in the evening, after mother had finished her second shift, the nice Spanish grandma, Louisa, who worked the hot bar always gave Devana and I extra-large helpings of the mashed potatoes and corn sides when we’d get our dinner there. (Which was literally every time we went.) Bless her heart, Louisa may have spoken maybe only five words of heavily-accented English but she was always so kind to us.
“And so Jack doesn’t want China to move up in the world?” I ask. “I’m still not seeing where the conflict happened.”
“So you’re skipping ahead a bit,” Li says. She serves me the now-finished omelet on a blue porcelain plate and I dig in. It’s delicious. “First, before you can persuade billions of Chinese citizens that luxury brands are actually something that they want, you need to convince them that paying four times for essentially the same thing is actually worth it.”
“Ah,” I say. “So therein lies the rub.”
“Exactly,” Li says. “There’s currently a giant wealth divide in China. The well-to-do are all westernized carrying around their $1,000 handbags and wearing their $2,000 wristwatches, in particular in the big cities. But the rest of China in their rural towns are plenty happy with their $10 Timex watches. And so there’s currently a battle over the soul of the country.
“Yun Bao was aligned with CCP in trying to move China towards a wealthier cultural attitude. But Jack disagrees. He thinks that China’s identity is rooted in its ‘everyday-ness’– the very quotidian nature of the average Chinese citizen may be modest. But he believes that China should embrace it instead of fleeing from it.”