(May 21): In a darkened theatre with just a beam of spotlight, a man in black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers appears on stage to introduce a smartphone or some other shiny new gadget. You have probably seen the clips on TV or YouTube. As the camera closes up on him and the audience roars, you suddenly realise it is not Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, but Lei Jun, the CEO and founder of Xiaomi — the maker of iPhone-lookalike cheap smartphones for the masses in China and India — unveiling the product. While he admits that the Apple co-founder was “an early inspiration”, Lei “Don’t call me Steve Jobs” insists he is no copycat and Xiaomi’s fledgling business model is very different from Apple’s. 

Long brushed off as a cheap imitator, Xiaomi, literally “little rice”, is now almost like the real thing. China’s second-biggest unicorn, or private company worth over a billion dollars, is seeking a listing on the Hong Kong bourse next month by raising over US$10 billion ($13.4 billion). Though it has quietly ratcheted down its expected IPO valuation from the US$100 billion reported in the media earlier this year to an expected range of US$60 billion to US$80 billion, Xiaomi’s listing would be the biggest capital raising for a tech company since the listing of Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group Holding on the New York Stock Exchange four years ago. 

Even at the lower end of the range, Xiaomi’s market capitalisation will be larger than some of the long-established global consumer electronics names, including Japan’s Sony Corp (US$59.8 billion) and Panasonic Corp (US$33.8 billion) and Korea’s LG Electronics (US$15.4 billion). Some China tech analysts were surprised that Xiaomi ended up choosing Hong Kong over Nasdaq or the New York Stock Exchange, where its razor-blade model probably would fetch far better valuation.

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