As a new generation of Chinese tech companies go global, often courting controversy in the process, it’s easy to forget Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker that acquired ThinkPad from IBM in 2005 and remains the world’s largest PC company. But Chinese nationalists haven’t; and now, they are sharpening their knives to go after a company that, for so long, seemed to have it comfortably both ways.
For the past month, Lenovo has been engulfed in a renewed controversy in its home country about whether the Beijing-headquartered company is “unpatriotic” and kowtowing to international markets. Sima Nan, an influencer with millions of online followers who made his name by heralding nationalist narratives, has posted 19 videos related to Lenovo since early November in what looks like a crusade against the company.
It’s a position Lenovo has repeatedly found itself in for the past few years. It has been accused of prioritizing international markets over its home market, not supporting fellow Chinese companies like Huawei and forgetting its roots as a state-owned enterprise. With all its resources and influence, Lenovo has never figured out how to pass the never-ending loyalty test administered by online nationalists.
As Chinese tech companies have become multinational giants, Lenovo’s story has become a cautionary tale for latecomers like DiDi, Tencent and ByteDance. The lesson: Success abroad can brew resentment at home.
In many ways, Lenovo paved the way for the next generation of Chinese tech companies. Born in 1984 as a firm wholly controlled by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lenovo underwent several rounds of transformation to become what it is today: a $12 billion, publicly traded company that sells in over 180 countries and employs 52,000 people. Its ambition has never been limited by its Chinese borders. As early as in 2001, CEO Yang Yuanqing had incorporated “an internationalized Lenovo” into the company’s motto. Within 12 years, it had become the top PC company by market share in the world.
But in recent years, Lenovo’s global success has increasingly turned from an asset into a liability.
Following Lenovo’s withdrawal of its application to list on Shanghai’s STAR stock market in October due to “market conditions,” on Nov. 7 the nationalist influencer Sima started posting videos about Lenovo — and hasn’t stopped since. Sima, whose real name is Yu Li but is better known by his alias, boasts millions of followers on popular social media platforms including Weibo, Douyin and Bilibili. His videos accuse the company of stealing state assets, paying its executives too much, having too much debt, posing a national security threat and more.
Some of Sima’s arguments inveigh against practices common among multinationals. He made a 20-minute video about how 14 of Lenovo’s 27 executives aren’t Chinese nationals and argued that this constitutes a security risk for the Chinese government. He also questioned why Lenovo executives, including Yang, are taking home millions of dollars in salary every year.
Sima, while the most vocal, isn’t the first to question Lenovo’s patriotism. In 2018, Lenovo was grilled on social because, two years earlier, it had sided with Qualcomm over Huawei in a telecom technical standards meeting. Yang responded on his personal WeChat timeline: “It was just a vote on technical standards, but two years later, it was hyped as a topic about patriotism.” Later in 2018, Yang received flack for saying, “We are not a Chinese company” in an interview that year with British publication The Inquirer. The company had to issue a statement saying that the quote was misconstrued.
All the controversy has culminated in a domestic distrust of Lenovo. Lenovo has the meme name as "nice to the American imperialists" (美帝良心) for pricing its products lower in the American markets than in China. Changing the company’s Chinese name from “Lenovo” to “Lenovo China” in 2019 was interpreted as a move to bill itself as only a local branch of a global company. The fact that Lenovo wasn’t hit with sanctions like TikTok or Huawei? Proof it’s sucking up to U.S. regulators.
Perhaps Lenovo didn’t anticipate that in addition to fending off international skepticism of it as a Chinese company, it needs to weather attacks at home as a company that has gone “too global.” Lenovo has been largely silent so far.
As the nationalist narrative in China continues to grow, it may damage the global ambitions of China’s homegrown tech companies. Increasingly, a global footprint, once a badge of honor, looks like a liability at home.