The Chinese government has intensified a co-ordinated public campaign against Apple, slamming the technology group as “dishonest”, “greedy” and “incomparably arrogant” and threatening regulatory action if the US company does not improve its after-sales service policies.
Following a series of scathing and apparently choreographed reports in China’s biggest state media outlets, the country’s quality inspection bureau said on Thursday that Apple would have to change some of its warranty policies or face “severe repercussions according to relevant laws and regulations”.
However in a country regularly exposed to public health scandals involving adulterated infant formula, toxic food additives and industrial pollution, Apple’s alleged transgressions have been met with a tepid response from the public.
“I think there is an ulterior motive behind this campaign [against Apple],” said Shi Beichen, a prominent Chinese technology blogger.
“For one thing, most of Apple’s servers are not in China and so the government is not able to impose its usual censorship restrictions.”
Other analysts have suggested that the government is hoping to undermine the dominance of Apple and other global operators in the Chinese market in order to benefit domestic companies such as Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE, who many analysts consider have been left behind by more innovative products from global competitors.
Research from a government institute last month said China was too reliant on Google’s Android smartphone operating system and Beijing has said it will place higher standards and restrictions on smartphone makers, including requirements for them to help the Chinese government monitor online activity.
China is Apple’s second-biggest market after the US and in January, during his second visit to China in 10 months, chief executive Tim Cook said he expected it to become the company’s biggest market in the future.
Apple sales in China in the fourth quarter of last year topped $7.3bn.
Senior state media bureaucrats are only too happy to pursue the public assault on Apple because they are trying to “save face” after an initial report on Apple backfired.
The official attacks on Apple began with a primetime special on state broadcaster China Central Television to mark consumer rights day on March 15 in which the maker of the iPhone and iPad was accused of treating Chinese consumers as less important than their western counterparts.
This claim was based partly on allegations that Apple does not replace the entire outer case when it repairs iPhones, as it does in other markets, because under Chinese law handset makers must provide a renewed warranty for a completely new phone.
However, attention shifted from the claims of discrimination when it was revealed that a number of celebrities had apparently been tasked by CCTV with promoting the television show by attacking Apple through their online social media accounts.
This prompted a surge of derision on China’s vibrant online social media directed towards the state broadcaster, which was accused of ignoring far worse infractions by state enterprises and powerful domestic companies.
“Everybody is eating cooking oil recycled from gutters, no problem! Everybody is drinking poisonous milk powder, no problem! We drink water filled with dead floating pigs, no problem! But when you change the back cover of iPhones for foreigners but not for us then that is not OK, that is far more serious than any of these problems,” wrote one sarcastic online commentator.
Apple responded to the initial CCTV report by posting a brief statement in Chinese on its website outlining its warranty policies and highlighting its “incomparable user experience”.
This contrasted with the swift reaction of German carmaker Volkswagen, which was also featured in the March 15 show and issued an almost immediate recall of more than 380,000 vehicles that the show claimed had problems with their gearboxes.
People who work for Chinese state media said Apple’s notorious secrecy and unresponsiveness to the media has angered officials in the past and its unwillingness to kowtow following the initial CCTV report likely spurred them to keep up the attacks.
Starting on Monday, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, ran a series of front-page articles and editorials that lambasted Apple for its lack of contrition, its arrogance and its discrimination against Chinese consumers.
“Perhaps the trouble comes from Westerners’ traditional sense of superiority,” the paper’s editorial said.
Adding to Apple’s China frustrations, the company was forced to appear in a Shanghai court on Wednesday to face a lawsuit from Shanghai Zhizhen Network Technology, a Chinese company that accuses it of intellectual property infringement related to Apple’s popular Siri software.
At the hearing, Apple argued that the Chinese company had not presented adequate evidence to show any infringement and Siri is covered by an international patent.