China Mourns Steve Jobs. But Can It Produce Its Own Tech Visionary?

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Flowers laid in tribute to Steve Jobs outside an Apple retail store in Shanghai, China, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP)

Less than a decade ago, I was going through airport security in southwestern China. The airport guy took a look at my laptop and began to chuckle. “Pingguo,” he said, pointing to the bitten fruit on the cover, “Apple.” What was my computer doing emblazoned with a healthy snack? What would these crazy foreigners think of next?

There’s a decent chance today that the amused airport employee now owns an iPhone—or at least a fake or bootleg one. So turbo-charged has been China’s economic development over the past 10 years that urban technological aspirations have leapfrogged from clunky pagers to sleek Apple gadgets. Greater China is now the fastest-growing market for Apple, and the company has just opened stores in Shanghai and Hong Kong. (The first Apple store in China opened a mere three years ago.) Apple says it sold nearly $4 billion of products in China between April and June of this year.

So it was no surprise that the death of Apple’s visionary founder Steve Jobs was big news in China. On Oct. 6, his demise was the most popular topic on Weibo, the Chinese microblog service that thrives in a country where Twitter is banned for political reasons. As of noon on Friday, more than 74 million people had posted comments on a Weibo tribute page  for Jobs. In Beijing, where a near riot broke out earlier this year at the crowded Apple store, passers-by laid white flowers, the color of mourning, to commemorate Jobs. (The reaction was presumably more muted in Apple supplier factories, where Chinese workers have for months complained about environmental and labor abuses that they say Apple has yet to fully address—a subject that will inform an off-Broadway show by my college classmate Mike Daisey, which opens later this month.)

(See photos of the long and extraordinary career of Steve Jobs.)

Apple products are generally more expensive in China than in the West, despite local disposable income being a fraction of that in the developed world. A thriving black market helps fuel the Apple mania. Beijing street stalls, for instance, already sell iPhone 5 cases—a bit premature since Apple’s much anticipated product launch earlier this month turned out to be for an iPhone 4S, not an iPhone 5. Earlier this year, an entire fake Apple store was discovered in southwest China. Want a Steve Jobs action doll? It’s available in Beijing.

I can’t think of a Western company more revered in China than Apple is. Its products, which aren’t modified for a Chinese audience but instead represent a universal design aesthetic, are the ultimate totem of the Chinese Dream. Much has been made of Jobs’ ties to Buddhism, how Eastern spirituality shaped the pure, pared-down beauty of Apple products. (Many Chinese would be distressed, no doubt, to find out that Beijing’s nemesis, the Dalai Lama, was once featured in an Apple ad.) But for many in China’s tech-obsessed generation, Jobs represented, I think, the triumph of an American Dream nourished by creativity and individuality. For as much as China churns out more engineers and programmers than America does, it has yet to produce a Steve Jobs.

(See photos of Steve Jobs’ TIME covers.)