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Right after China's state-run television station ran a damning documentary on Apple's customer-service practices, a bunch of Chinese celebrities took to China's version of Twitter, all at the same time, to paint a picture of Apple as bullying consumers. Is this a government conspiracy, coincidence, or some combination therein? Let's look at every theory.

The digital celebrity trail begins with the man pictured at right, who posted the only evidence that this might be a state-sponsored Apple bashing campaign in a since deleted (and replaced) message on the Twitter-style service, Weibo. Peter Ho, a Chinese movie star who also supposedly works as a Samsung spokesman, initially posted the following message:

#315 on the move# Cannot believe Apple is playing so many dirty tricks in customer service. As an Apple fan, I feel hurt. Won’t you [Apple] feel ashamed in front of Steve Jobs? Won’t you feel ashamed in front of those young people who sell their kidneys for your products? You dare to bully consumers simply because you are a famous brand. Need to send out at about 8:20 pm.

Here's a screengrab via OffBeatChina's Alia:

That last sentence — "Need to send out at about 8:20 pm" — reads like something of a directive rather than an addendum, and it's raising suspicions about a coordinated and timed attack, or at least a smart PR campaign. CultofMac's Mike Elgan says the extra sentence is "evidence that Ho didn't write the tweet himself, but that it was written by someone else and that Ho was being instructed to post it." To make matters more suspicious, Ho then deleted the original message, only to replace it with the same message, this time without that finale line. 

Around the same time, others noticed that more celebrities, including children's author Zheng Yuanjie, had posted similarly scathing remarks on their Weibo accounts, leading news organizations to conclude that the state television station, CCTV, had paid these people to take down Apple, possibly as a hit job on the very much non-Chinese company. The CCTV documentary centers on the question of repairs versus refurbishment — that used phones as replacements don't represent the Chinese standard of customer service, which the government says should include iPhone repais. Apple Even though Apple creates a ton of jobs in China through its iPhone production, some see the alleged propaganda campaign as a push for homegrown technology products — last week the Chinese government released a study saying Android apps were secretly stealing user data — while other think the government may not be involved at all.

However, in addition to Ho's quick Weibo delete-and-replace move, the Chinese government seems to have censored the #postat820 hashtag, which erupted soon after the message and turned into accusations that a so-called "820 Party" was selling out, and trying to sink Apple's customer-service reputation. The censorship online could mean that CCTV and government censors were on the same page with the celebrities and their message writers as the campaign went on defense after Ho accidentally outed the alleged scheme. Or maybe the authorities didn't like the way the conversation had blamed the government.

It's also possible Ho's slip-up has more to do with his apparent connection to Samsung and not to state-TV campaign turned into a celebrity slam on an American company. In the end, Ho posted an explanation for the whole trail of events, claiming that his phone had been stolen and his Weibo account had been hacked. Many have called this explanation bogus, if only because Ho is certainly starting to look like someone who got caught red-handed. The author, Yuanjie, has denied being paid for his remarks. Perhaps he really doesn't like refurbished iPhones. Or maybe he's just better at keeping his cool than a frantic celebrity who also gets paid by Samsung.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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