The death of Steve Jobs echoed through China last week in a uniquely emotional and Chinese way.

Unlike the rest of the world, this event was not merely a chance to mourn the passing of a technology icon. Instead, it was an occasion for Chinese citizens, especially the emerging middle class that is the key to the nation’s consumer culture, to reflect on what Steve Jobs’ life said about their own prospects and future.

Within hours of the news, more than 35 million Chinese netizens unleashed an outpouring of opinion and emotion on Sina Weibo, the nation’s popular microblogging service. Shrines adorned with white flowers, the traditional symbol for tears and mourning, blocked the entrances to Apple’s hugely successful stores in Beijing and Shanghai. TV newscasts treated the event like the passing of a government dignitary. Newspapers marveled at Jobs’ business genius and the success of Apple products among Chinese consumers, who are scarfing up I Phones, I Pads and Mac computers to the tune of $2.8 billion per quarter.

All of this seemed counter-intuitive, because Apple, and Jobs personally, never seemed to try very hard to win the heart of China.

He never visited on business, unlike the countless CEOs of multi-national corporations who make regular, humbling pilgrimages to win favor with the Chinese government and media.

He never tailored his products for the Chinese market, the favored tactic for most makers of consumer wares, but still managed to turn anything Apple into a nationwide aspiration. This was the case even though an I Phone 4, with a price tag of 5,000 RMB, costs as much as the average worker in a prosperous city such as Shanghai makes in a month.

He was a man completely different from Chinese business leaders, someone who most Chinese believe would never have been a success had he been born and raised in China. (Check out this great weibo post, translated into English, that speculates on Jobs’ life had he been Chinese )

The latter point holds the most compelling lesson for other companies hoping to learn from Apple’s success and the iconic status Jobs achieved here. As Chinese citizens both online and off debated whether China could ever produce a visionary leader equal to Jobs, they revealed something essential for global business leaders to understand about this nation’s middle class.

Masked inside the national pride and patriotism displayed daily in social and traditional media, there is a gnawing sense that all of China’s remarkable progress is somehow not enough.

Members of the fast-growing middle class are insecure overachievers. They continually worry about their next pay raise and promotion, while comparing their own success with that of their schoolmates or colleagues over coffee at Starbucks, asking each other in the course of I Pad- and I Phone-enabled social media discussions whether China will ever have its own Steve Jobs.

That question is less about China than about themselves. And the products they buy after waiting on long queues to enter an Apple store reassure them that their aspirations might just be more powerful than their anxieties. As far as China goes, perhaps Steve Jobs’ true genius was that his products were able to tap into that insight in a powerful way.