How the Apple Confrontation Divides China

Not everyone in China is proud of the way their government handled a recent fight with the tech giant.

A man yawns in front of a cell phone store advertising Apple products in Beijing, China. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
On April 2, a catchy headline splashed across the pages of major Chinese newspapers, ending a breathless three-week assault that the Chinese media launched at Apple, which it accused of discriminating against Chinese customers in its warranty policies.

"Apple Apologizes to Chinese Customers, Promising to Adjust its Warranty Policies" People's Daily announced on its front page. "Apple's Apology is a Step in the Right Direction," titled an editorial on Global Times, its magnanimous tone a stark contrast to the earlier bellicose rhetoric: "As the world's leading high-tech enterprise, Apple can adjust its attitude in a timely manner, showing its professionalism and flexibility," the editorial reads.

Meanwhile, the discussion unfolding on Weibo, China's popular social media platform, behind the top trending hashtag "Apple Apologized" took on a very different focus. Under Tim Cook's apology letter, reposted from the Chinese version of the Apple website, several commentators rejoiced over the victory Chinese media scored in forcing Apple to "bow its arrogant head," as one user put it. The majority of the commentators, however, were in no mood to celebrate.

"An aggressive media used its monopoly power to bully others and achieved its political agenda. I don't know why such victory should make one happy," one commentator contended.

"Hearing about Apple's apology, I am reminded of the Google controversy in 2009," another widely shared comment read, referring to Google's confrontation with the Chinese government four years ago over its censorship policy, which contributed to the company's exit from the mainland. "The company tried to adjust itself while holding its principles, but was still driven out in the end. I never feel it represents a failure on Google's part. When later generations look back on our behaviors today, they will definitely laugh."

From day one of the Chinese media blitz against Apple, which started with a television exposé on deficiencies in Apple's after-sales services in mid-March, a very different campaign has been unfolding on in Chinese social media. Hundreds of thousands of Weibo users -- students, intellectuals, white-collar workers and celebrities -- voiced their support for the American technological behemoth, while directing their condemnations at the state media for its deplorable public relations tactics. This debate reflects a dichotomy that is increasingly emerging in China- between a heavy-handed, nationalistic government and an increasingly outward-looking public willing to consider global information and ideas.

Since its flagship store opened in Beijing in 2008, Apple has grown into a shining beacon of success among foreign businesses in China. Thousands of guofen, Apple fans, routinely stand in lines overnight for the release of Apple's newest gadget, and technology geeks, much like their American counterparts, rush to interpret and analyze the devices' novel features. Last year, Apple's sales in China reached $23.8 billion, which made up for 15 percent of its worldwide revenue and ranked China Apple's second largest market after the United States.

The latest model of iPhone is priced at around $850 in China, two and a half times of the average monthly disposable income of an urban resident. In the luxury-obsessed Chinese society today, where one hears of stories like a college student working at a construction site to pay off the loan he took to buy an Apple product, Apple's significance as a status symbol is not to be underestimated. But deeper reasons also exist for the brand's ultra-popularity in China. On Internet forums, most customers quoted Apple products' superb quality, convenient operating system, and slick design as the biggest draws. Many Weibo users who defended Apple against Chinese media's attacks put iPhone in comparison with domestic mobile products from companies like Huawei, lamenting the gap in user experience with the two brands. "Of course I would choose the better product," one user opined, "and it has nothing to do with which country produced it."

So far, Apple has not launched many ostensible campaigns to mold its corporate image in China, but here, as in the U.S., the image of the brand is intrinsically linked with its founder, Steve Jobs. Nicknamed "Qiao Bangzhu," or "Master Jobs," the legendary entrepreneur is viewed in China as an iconic innovator whose vision and taste has transcended culture and nationality. With 678,000 copies of his biography sold in the first week of its publication in China, people repeated Jobs' personal story and that of his company with the kind of excitement and reverence rarely displayed for domestic celebrities. They view his life as a quintessential American success story: that a man born into a disadvantageous background could grow up in a tolerant and nurturing society, could try out his ideas in a fair and well-regulated competitive environment, and could go far in life by being an iconoclast instead of a conformist. These conditions form a vivid contrast to the social environment Chinese are all too familiar with at home, where a rigid education system stifles innovation, an immense pressure of living discourages risk-taking, and a connection -- instead of talent-driven environment puts shackles on individual aspirations. Upon Jobs' death in 2011, the Chinese Internet was filled with eulogies, and many shed sorrowful tears. It also set off rounds of deep soul-searching: "Born an orphan, had no college diploma, and without connections, what would happen to Jobs if he were born in China?" some asked.

On April 1st, after more than two weeks of sustained attacks from Chinese media, Apple offered mea culpa to Chinese authorities. In a letter posted on Apple's official website, CEO Tim Cook apologized for "any concern or misunderstanding" arising from its "insufficient communication" with Chinese government and customers. To this day, it is still unclear what actually triggered the Chinese government's ire: many suggest it may be in retaliation for U.S. government restrictions on Chinese companies like Huawei, and others argue it's simply a "rite of passage" for foreign businesses in China. It was clear, however, that these government-sponsored attacks have largely backfired, as their scathing accusations and nationalistic tone were met with more mockery and anger than applause on the Chinese internet. At a time when China is mired in a slew of domestic issues, from toxic air and poisonous food to drinking water contaminated by tens of thousands of pig corpses, many people were angered by the government's stubborn nitpicking of a foreign brand while turning a blind eye to domestic woes.

One post on Weibo summed up a widespread public sentiment following Apple's apology. "Apple apologized, but no one apologized for the shoddy schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake; no one apologized for tainted milk powder; no one apologized for SARS cover-up; no one apologized for AIDS villages in Henan, no one apologized for the over 10,000 dead pigs that polluted the Huangpu river."

In the end, whatever reason lay behind Chinese media's assault at Apple, the brouhaha, like similar episodes experience by other international businesses, reflects the old ham-handed and hostile instinct of Chinese authorities in dealing with foreign influences. More and more, such attitude is at odds with the voices of a more independent-minded and worldly Chinese public. Today's iPhone-wielding, social media-surfing youngsters in China embrace Apple for its chic image, superb product quality, and, increasingly, the kind of society and ideals it symbolizes. Accompanying the material status that owning an Apple product represents should also be the pride and dignity entitled to a modern global citizen, enjoyed by tens of millions of other Apple users around the world, not the kind of dignity, it seems, the Chinese state has ostensibly sought on their behalf in its ferocious campaign.

"Apple has apologized, and I suggest CCTV, People's Daily and Global Times choose Facebook as its next target," read one wry comment on Weibo. "[Facebook,] you have more than one billion users, and why won't you let the Chinese visit your site? You are discriminating against the Chinese with a double standard. Zuckerberg, please apologize!"