After more than two weeks of sustained attack from China’s biggest state media outlets, Apple finally genuflected this week and issued a humble apology for its “perceived” arrogance and disregard for Chinese customers.
The lesson was clear: the world’s most powerful brand is no match for the Chinese Communist party in a head-to-head battle because the party ultimately controls access to the world’s most promising consumer market.
But there was another important lesson that came out of the skirmish between the iPad maker and the propaganda apparatus.
On the internet, which the party can corral with the “Great Firewall” but cannot really control, and particularly on Twitter-like Weibo, the backlash against the state and the cheering for Apple was devastating.
“Our support for Apple doesn’t mean we agree with the company’s insincere behaviour; it mostly represents our contempt for China’s shameless [state] media,” wrote Wan Tao, the young chief executive of a Chinese technology company.
It is pretty much axiomatic that the young, urban and middle class in China are apolitical and accept the social contract presented to them by the party after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown – stay out of politics and we will let you get rich and have lots of shiny things.
But at least in the virtual world that compact has broken down, partly as a result of the technology that has come along with all the shiny things that companies such as Apple are selling.
It was subtle at first – a few coded comments poking fun at a particular government policy, a mildly subversive cartoon that was passed around until it was deleted by the web watchers.
But in the past three or four years, along with a huge rise in internet users – by the end of 2012 there were 564m, more than double the number of four years earlier – the wave of mockery and cynicism directed against the government has grown exponentially.
High-tech gadgets and social media sites are inherently cool and the fact that online discourse is dominated by snide remarks about the government makes poking fun at the government cool as well.
The Chinese internet has its share of funny dance videos and cats doing silly things but unlike in the west, many of the most popular viral memes are direct or indirect political assaults on officials and their policies.
In just the past few years it has become fashionable to be anti-establishment and in private, senior party officials worry they have lost control of the public discourse, which now revolves around Weibo.
The fact that the party used to exercise such a stranglehold over all forms of public expression – from newspapers to television to theatre and fine arts – has probably made the online awakening of petty dissent so much more shocking to the mandarins in Beijing.
Humour, particularly satirical humour, is anathema to authoritarian regimes and, like their counterparts anywhere, Chinese leaders fear being laughed at far more than outright opposition or even rebellion.
Chinese leaders like to define their tenure with snappy slogans – for recently retired Hu Jintao it was building a “harmonious society” and “scientific development”.
China’s newly appointed President Xi Jinping seems to have chosen the “Chinese dream” as his political strapline but already there has been a wave of mockery for this rather amorphous concept.
“I have a dream that one day I will be able to breathe fresh air, drink clean water and eat vegetables that aren’t poisoned,” wrote Pan Caifu, a popular columnist, on his Weibo account. “But these are biological necessities and they are also the most basic rights of humans; if we have to ‘dream’ about having these things then talking about a China Dream is just a joke.”
For people who lived through the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, scathing political humour was a tell-tale sign that the old order would eventually fall.
Another sign of bankruptcy during Soviet times was the popularity of blue jeans and American rock music – what used to be referred to in China as “spiritual pollution”.
Twitter, Facebook and iPads are the blue jeans of modern China and that is one reason the party has completely blocked the first two and may be planning an assault on the third.
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