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LAST WORD: China’s Love / Hate Relationship with Apple
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Every year on 15 March the CPC honours World Consumer Rights Day with a nationally broadcasted program on CCTV that aims to expose negligence or wrong doing by both Chinese and foreign companies operating in the mainland.   
The event is heavily publicised by the Party and captures an audience of several million. Past run-ups to the event have seen communities organise controlled burns of fake cigarettes and merchandise; in at least one instance a village enlisted the help of flame-thrower wielding firefighters to start the blaze.  
Publicity stunts such as these, along with the generally sensational coverage of the event gives outsiders (namely me) the impression that the whole ordeal is a “dog and pony” show- solely intended to smear the names of a handful of companies and consequently, pass responsibility from government to the consumers.   
On the surface, it appears the desired result of the program is to dissuade consumers from purchasing goods or services from these companies, thus violators are punished by market forces and the government is free from the burden of taking specific action.   
Presumably because of often tense Sino/US relations, a few US companies are predictably targeted for malpractice; this year the CPC went after Apple in previously unparalleled fashion.
Apple was among several companies mentioned on the broadcast but the true opening salvo was launched the next day; State-media run People’s Daily dedicated a half-page to re-hashing the supposed wrong doings of the California based tech giant.   
The criticism was focused mostly on poor warranty service but then the fight was taken a step further when they dubbed Apple as “incomparably arrogant” and threatening “severe repercussions” if customer service wasn’t improved.   
The onslaught continued for several days and Chinese celebrities joined the fray by voicing their disapproval via Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.  The outcry on Weibo was later theorised to have been orchestrated by a third-party as one celeb posted his attack followed by what appeared to be specific instructions on what time to post the comment. Several other prominent voices posted their criticism at or around the same time, making “8:20” a meme in the Chinese blogosphere.  
Finally, the independent Beijing-based financial magazine Caijing posted a survey to its online readers: “As a consumer, which arrogant company or companies do you want to smash? Please give specific names so that we can announce a top 10.”  The phrasing of the question was clearly inspired by the title of the People’s Daily article, “Smash Apple’s Incomparable Arrogance”, but the ploy backfired. 
Paul Mozur, a contributor for the Wall Street Journal reported that, “By Wednesday evening the poll had more than 600 comments, but Apple wasn’t a top mention. Instead, hundreds of users repeatedly named (…) China’s three largest oil companies, its three major telecom-service providers, and its four major banks, along with other government-run services like railways, electricity and water...”
It’s not new for western companies to come under attack during this annual expose- Volkswagen, KFC, Subway, McDonalds and others have been targeted - but the extent of this particular instance was unique.    
Why did the CPC double-down on Apple and why now?  Many theories have been discussed - in an excerpt taken directly from CNN Money, Philip Elmer-DeWitt recaps what he believes to be the most likely scenarios:
Apple is behaving badly. It is possible that the company does in fact discriminate against Chinese users with second-rate return and warranty policies. We don't really know because Apple has done such a bad job explaining what those policies are. 
Apple hasn't courted the right officials. That's also possible, although when he visited Beijing last year, CEO Tim Cook made a point of meeting Li Keqiang, and Mr. Li is now China's premier.
China is trying to bolster its domestic Smartphone makers. It's true that there are a number of Chinese manufacturers fighting for a share of the domestic Smartphone business, but none of them really compete directly with Apple's high-end phones.
China is trying to strengthen the hand of its state-owned mobile phone operators. China Unicom (CHU) and China Telecom (CHA) already sell iPhones, so the most likely beneficiary would China Mobile (CHL), the world's largest carrier and the only major Chinese operator that still hasn't cut a deal with Apple.
China is retaliating for Congress' treatment of Huawei and ZTE. Last year, the House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee issued a report labelling China's two flagship telecom companies a security risk and urged U.S. firms not to do business with them. This would be payback.
The real motivation will likely never materialise. However,  it’s clear that, aside from the first theory, these all seem to fit under the umbrella of unrestrained economic nationalism.
Apple was slow to respond directly to the attacks. In the days following, Apple posted clarification of the company’s warranty policy on its Chinese website saying it fixes phones with new components but reattaches the original back case. They also reminded customers that they offer a 90-day guarantee on repairs which is longer than the 30-days required by Chinese law.  Per the Apple website: "Apple's Chinese warranty is more or less the same as in the US and all over the world.” 
Side-by-side examination of Apple’s US and Chinese warranty policies reveals that the company hasn’t done anything nearly as egregious as suggested – in fact, they appear to be mostly equal.  Both offer the same return period on newly purchased products, a full refund on returns by cash or credit card, a one-year warranty on defective hardware (which can be done with new or refurbished parts), and a 90-day warranty on repairs.  
That said, China isn’t the first country to pick a fight with Apple over its warranty policies – Italy has taken Apple to the mat for not adhering to EU law pertaining to consumer electronics.  Apple doesn’t meet the statutory minimum coverage time of two years; instead they offer a one year warranty with Apple Care extended for a year at an additional cost.  If Italy prevails, the consequences will likely affect Apple in all 27 Euro Zone countries.  
For now, it appears that this fight will end in a stalemate; Apple maintains that they give a superior user experience and thus have developed a cult-like following in China.  The CPC is grappling with thorny issues like IP laws and still don’t have the mechanisms in place to properly protect their citizens from fraud and poor service. 
Likewise, the concept of customer service and consumer rights is still relatively new to Chinese citizens.  This is a common occurrence in developing economies - as people rise from poverty into the middle class they tend to demand more – often companies and government bodies cannot react quickly enough to meet rapidly changing consumer demands and trends. Ideally, true reforms will take hold and consumers won’t have to wait until 15 March every year to voice their opinions.

By Christopher Ribeiro
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