A compact report on the world’s biggest economy, told through the story of the third-largest global manufacturer of smartphones.
Prominent technology writer Shirky (Journalism and Interactive Telecommunications/New York Univ.; Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, 2010, etc.) spent a year in Shanghai researching the hyperlucrative communications market, which has exploded in popularity and demand. This has created an unmatched “teledensity” rate: even poverty-stricken populations retain a mobile phone penetration factor of upward of 58 percent—three phones for every five people. Building on this data, the author focuses his attention on the booming startup software firm Xiaomi Tech (“little rice” in Mandarin) since its unassuming Beijing inception in 2010 by now-billionaire Lei Jun. Much more than just another Chinese export operation, Shirky contends that this industry innovator not only offers flexibility and freedom from an autocratic society, but openly challenges modern China’s closely scrutinized governmental control over its citizens’ online activities. Documenting a guided tour of the company’s offices, the author concisely documents Xiaomi’s beginnings from offering carefully prototyped consumer hardware to its MIUI operating system. Shirky also viewed the firm’s intricate cluster of “advertising” programmers, who were busy producing unique internal tools to communicate with users. The company soon branched out to further embrace and capitalize on the colossal smartphone revolution with its Mi-phone series, alongside advanced industrial design and online services. Shirky condenses both the history of the “Chinese Dream” and more contemporary notes on Chinese commerce and politics without criticism, leaving the determination up to readers whether the direction technology is taking consumers, both inside and outside of China, is beneficial or otherwise. Still, as Xiaomi continues to openly compete with other world-class designers and electronic originators, the Chinese-borne caveat remains that “the forces of conservatism and corruption always threaten to freeze progress.”
A compact, accessible, and intelligently delivered update on China’s evolving economic and political front via one particularly accomplished electronics venture.