The Chinese are professionals at the backhanded compliment. For me, this ability to say things without saying them is one of the more fascinating things in the Chinese culture. I’ve had many a smile, brought on by presumed flattery, slowly fade as the real meaning gradually began to sink in.
So imagine my surprise when it was not Taiwan delivering the backhanded compliment to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt during his visit there, but the other way around. Hidden in his half-hour-long praise of Taiwan was masterful criticism that obliquely asked: how the hell has Taiwan not developed into an internet powerhouse yet?
The ex-CEO Schmidt opened his “Unlimited Possibility” speech with the following:
“I believe Taiwan has a chance to enter a new golden age of innovation, the era of the internet, and that’s what I want to talk about.” (0:35 in the video below)
Wow! What a nice thing to say about a country… in 1998. ‘The era of the internet! You’re almost there, Taiwan!’ He even used the word ‘chance,’ as if it weren’t even guaranteed. And, remember, this was just the beginning.
To cut even deeper, he immediately went on to congratulate Taiwan on the statistics (Taiwan has 95% broadband penetration, 26% of the phones are smartphones, half of which use internet services, and the island is ninth in the world in internet connection speed), as if to more starkly point out his disbelief at the lack of internet innovation in Taiwan.
He would go on to offer gratitude to Taiwan’s OEMs and their ability to drive prices down because of the value it provides Android smartphone users with. Taken as a whole, it was akin to the CEO tipping his shoe shiner for a job well done with a word of encouragement that maybe, just maybe, he’d become a janitor.
After his speech, Schmidt participated in an equally embarrassing one-on-one with Acer founder Shih Zhen-Rong (施振榮). It was pretty awkward in general; seeing an aging Shih talk about the mobile community with the Chairman of Google’s Board was like watching my grandfather try to talk to me about the Xbox 360 or Facebook.
The worst of it was when Shih got on the topic of Korea, and wouldn’t let it go. Some background here: TianXia (天下) Magazine, hosts of the event, just finished a series on Korea vs. Taiwan and why Korean companies such as Samsung are beating Taiwanese companies such as HTC. Shih repeatedly asked Schmidt to compare Korea (the next stop on his trip) and Taiwan, goading the Googler into saying something controversial. When the even-keeled Schmidt refused to give him anything juicy, Shih provided the sound bite he wished for by himself, “Korea is everyone’s enemy. Taiwan is everyone’s friend” (at the ~3:00 mark in the video). In what perfectly represents Taiwan’s national Napoleonic insecurity, the crowd enthusiastically applauded. Ugh.
The crazy thing about this debacle was that neither the crowd, the Taiwanese president Ma Ying Jeou, nor indeed the media picked up on any of this. Even crazier, they have been in celebration all day over it. Are you kidding me?
Some of the clueless press went on to take it as an affirmation of President Ma Ying Jeou’s policies (In reality, it was a genius and deliberate rebuke of his inability to innovate.) Others went on to call Google’s $100 million data center in Changhua county an endorsement of Taiwanese innovation. Sugarcoating of this sort is far too common in the Taiwanese press, and in making the story oh-so pro-Taiwan, they failed to mention that Google – in order to improve its China position – just made the same exact data center investment in Singapore and Hong Kong as well. They also failed to note that a data center is a totally mundane investment not representative of any real endorsement at all.
As the watchdogs of society, if the media didn’t realize what was being said, how could the average employee, teacher, or policymaker have?
So, Taiwan, allow me to translate. This was an awful showing on many levels. In a very Chinese way, Eric Schmidt was telling you to innovate the Asian internet and to do so quickly. At the very least, his words had a silver lining to them. He seriously believes in your potential. In fact, ‘Limitless Potential,’ the title of his speech, was the least shrouded part of the message he was trying to send you. Concluding, he slowly and deliberately (check it out for yourself at around 1:53 in the first video) asked for your help to “make sure the government knows how central this is to the growth of Taiwan,” because the government thus far has pretty much failed.
Wake up, Taiwan. You just got called out by one of the biggest figures in the internet world and you gave yourselves a pat on the back. Realize what Schmidt did(n’t) say. Move forward and use last night as the rock-bottom moment where you reflect on the errors of your ways and take this as the world’s encouragement for you to change course. Your future lies not in low-margin ODM manufacturing, but in your ability to lead a unique brand of Asian internet culture in the region.
Let this be a calling to the entrepreneurs, dreamers, and innovators out there: as an island with so much influence in China and beyond, Eric Schmidt demands that you get off Facebook and start actually doing something with the internet. There is a spry and eager startup community developing day by day within your borders, with some teams one big government investment away from becoming seriously relevant in the Asian arena. The onus to actually evolve the economy, however, is on you.
Has your smile faded yet?