Many of China’s biggest tech leaders were chattering in cyberspace last week from Beijing, where they were gathered for this year’s National People’s Congress and the related Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), collectively known as the lianghui. Lei Jun, CEO of handset sensation Xioami, was uncharacteristically low-key in talking about his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as was Li Dongsheng, the soft-spoken CEO of leading TV maker TCL (HKEx: 1070; Shenzhen: 000100). But the marketing savvy Xiaomi was still up to its usual publicity tricks, helping to spread a series of photos showing Robin Li, founder of search leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU), using a Xiaomi handset in one of the sessions.
Equally interesting from the sidelines of the lianghui was the absence of one of China’s biggest tech leaders, Tencent (HKEx: 700) founder Pony Ma. The publicity-shy Ma was originally set to attend the annual meeting in Beijing, but pulled out with the excuse that he was suffering from back problems. China Internet watchers will know that Tencent has just announced a major new e-commerce tie-up with JD.com (previous post), which now looks like an important part of Ma’s decision to skip this year’s lianghui in Beijing.
But rather than focus on who was absent from the meetings, let’s look more closely at who was in attendance. Of the names I’ve mentioned, the one that looks most intriguing is Robin Li, who was photographed several times using Xiaomi’s latest smartphone, the Mi3. Xiaomi corporate marketing executive Tony Wei certainly didn’t miss the chance to forward a microblog post featuring a photo of Li sitting at his seat with a white Xiaomi smartphone prominently visible on the desk in front of him. (microblog post) Several other photos of Li and his Xiaomi smartphone also appeared on the web, hinting that someone was keen to capture images of the Baidu founder using the brand.
I personally found the pictures of Li not very flattering, which implies that perhaps he really was unaware that he was being photographed. His use of a Xiaomi also seems just slightly strange, since Baidu announced a major new smart TV tie-up last year with TCL, which is also a major smartphone aspirant though clearly a second-tier player. The photos are also a slight surprise since I would expect Li to be using a more upscale Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone or at least a Samsung (Seoul: 005930) Galaxy. Accordingly, I do wonder if perhaps this whole series of photos isn’t a well-planned publicity ploy, and we perhaps might see Baidu and Xiaomi form some kind of tie-up later this year.
From the Robin Li photos, let’s look quickly at the other posts from the lianghui, one also involving Xiaomi’s Lei Jun and the other involving TCL’s Li Dongsheng. Let’s continue with Xiaomi, whose talkative CEO Lei was surprisingly quiet on his own microblog about his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Instead, we once again see Xiaomi marketing master Tony Wei forwarding a link to a third-party article in which Lei is quoted talking about his meeting with Xi.
Lei’s recollection of his brief meeting is quite demure, describing how he shook the president’s hand and was honored to learn that Xi had heard of Xiaomi. (microblog post) Lei goes on to say how he was tempted to ask Xi if he would consider using a Xiaomi phone, but that there wasn’t enough time and too many people were around to make such a request. It seems that even a marketing man like Lei Jun can sometimes be at a loss for words.
TCL’s Li Dongsheng was equally demure about his meeting with Xi, though that’s more in line with his more humble and low-profile character. Li describes how he met Xi when the president visited his delegation from Guangdong province, which is where TCL is based. (microblog post) Li’s recollection of what Xi actually said wasn’t too interesting, though he was moved when the president recognized him as a tech leader from the region. Li was also impressed that Xi made special efforts to shake hands with every member of the Guangdong delegation. It seems that handshakes in this kind of situation can leave even the most famous industry leaders in a state of awe and silence.