Free laptops for NPC delegates – it looked good on paper

Let’s say you’re a company selling some kind of product. Let’s say your product is –let’s just pick something at random here– laptop computers. Globally, this is a heavily commoditized category jammed with companies selling look-alike products with similar feature sets. In China, which has the usual big-time  suspects plus a whole cloud of local also-rans, the situation is even more competitive. How do you stand out? How do you persuade students, young professionals and other consumers to buy your laptop, and not some brand-x laptop poseur laptop?

Well, in China the answer is often, “be cheapest!” But that’s not always the whole story. Often there is also some PR.

To that end, one thing you would often do is try to get your product into the hands of “influencers”, people who have the power to help lead public opinion in your target market, ideally in your favor. One way to approach this is the celebrity endorsement: I’ll send a cubic meter of 100RMB notes to your house if you wave my company’s product around, appear in some ads and show up at some of my events. And, hey, why not write a blog about it? This is generally legit and practiced everywhere. George Clooney and Omega watches, for instance, except he probably doesn’t get paid in RMB.

There is also the schwag approach, in which you give your product away to rich, famous and stylish types in the hope that they’ll be seen using it thus conferring glamor and sexiness upon it, hopefully without you having to write a colossal sponsorship check. This is why you hear about things like the absurd gift baskets at the Academy Awards. This also leads to the great commercial irony that rich people get more stuff for free than more deserving types, such as impoverished PR bloggers, and will no doubt be a contributing factor in the revolution when it finally comes.

There are, however, some generally accepted rules about the schwag game. Two of those rules, involving who it’s OK to target and how schwag can be paid for, can be summed up in a diagram that looks like this:


By participating in a program to give free laptop computers to 2000 delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), Lenovo appears to have landed squarely in the lower-right, or what I like to call the “PR deathtrap” quadrant. The CPPCC is a political body that nominally advises on and suggests policy and which convened this week in Beijing as part of the annual political “two meetings” festivities. The other meeting is that of National People’s Congress, which has the slightly heavier responsibility of endorsing actual policy (a cynic might say, “rubber stamping”, although the NPC has pushed back from time to time).

The always excellent China Media Project sums up the laptop situation:

As China’s annual National People’s Congress opened yesterday, many news headlines pounced on Premier Wen Jiabao’s remarks toward the end of his NPC report (see tab 11), in a section on anti-corruption, about the need for leaders to report their personal assets. But in the margins, commentators railed against shady practices nearer at hand — more than 2,000 laptop computers given away to delegates at the public’s expense.

The laptop story bubbled up out of China’s social media sphere back on March 2, when Chinese Internet users noted an odd mini blog entry from Zhang Xiaomei (张晓梅), a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference who is also the publisher of Beauty Fashion magazine.

Zhang’s entries were succinct, mostly mundane summaries of preparations and speeches ahead of the two meetings.

CPPCC Chairman Tao says: being a national delegate to the CPPCC is a glorious mission, and a post for political participation and discussion. Sichuan party secretary Liu Qibao (刘奇葆) says: last year was the toughest year, this year is the most complex.

But in one entry she wrote: “When delegates report [to the meeting] they each get a laptop computer. What is different from last year is that this year these don’t need to be returned after we’re done with them. This is much more practical.”

Yeah, it sure is, isnt it? Keeping stuff often is.

As China Media Project explains, the response both online and in mainstream media has been pretty negative, with accusations of corruption and speculation about the amount of tax dollars spent on the computers. It has also been pointed out that Lenovo executives account for a large share of the IT industry representation at the CPPCC.

So here is where it gets interesting, and perhaps where Lenovo put a foot wrong assuming they played some role in creating this program and weren’t just lucky beneficiaries. CPPCC delegates occupy a strange space in between celebrity and politician. Many of the delegates, such as Ms. Zhang, are in fact celebrities or notables from the business world. Most are not politicians or officials in their daily lives. As the Financial Times noted this week, the entire CPPCC is a bit theatrical, and its actual contribution to the legislative process is debatable at best. In previous years delegates had been loaned computers, so why not let them hold onto them this  year? A relatively small change in the grand scheme of things.

But regardless of what you think about the CPPCC or the actual power of its delegates, in the context of the “two meetings” the delegates are acting as politicians. In an era when Chinese people are increasingly sensitized to corruption and willing to discuss it online and hold officials to account, giving laptops to 2,000 wealthy people operating in a political role looks risky at best. Perhaps in some years it doesn’t become a big deal, but this year it rubbed people the wrong way. It probably would have been best to stick to the loaner approach, even at the risk of some slightly inconvenienced delegates.

From Imagethief’s point of view the good news is that this issue became, well, an issue. That it escalated online and in the media is a headache for Lenovo and perhaps an embarrassment for some of the delegates (although that may be optimistic), but it’s a good thing for accountability and for China. The CPPCC may be largely symbolic, but at least it could be relatively clean and symbolic.

So what should Lenovo do? This situation is a long way from being out of control, so what they probably will do is hunker down and wait for the government to decide that discussion of this issue is no longer appropriate and then enjoy the ensuing silence. A more progressive option would be to announce that in subsequent years they’ll return to a policy of loaning delegates computers rather than giving them away. Better yet would be to cancel the whole thing and make delegates self sufficient for computing in future. I’m sure most CPPCC delegates –even the ethnic minority delegates– can afford a computer.

Or how about this: It’s awkward to inform delegates that, sorry, contrary to what they were originally told they do have to return the machines. But Lenovo could ask delegates who don’t need the computers after the meetings to voluntarily return them, and then publicly donate the returned machines to some worthy cause. Rural schools? Barefoot doctors? Impoverished bloggers? You name it. Plenty of options.

Note: Some in-situ links removed from the paragraphs quoted from China Media Project. It’s worth visiting their original post.

Disclosure: I do not work on any laptop computer accounts, however my agency does represent a competitor to Lenovo. The views expressed here are my own.

Update: David Bandurski of China Media Project left a comment in the original version of this post noting that, as of writing, criticism in the media was not directed at Lenovo specifically. At least, not yet.

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