China's industry and commerce authority has said that it will tighten its oversight of Apple as well as punish the technology giant for failing to comply with Chinese laws following a month-long media blitz accusing the company of “arrogance”.
A little more than a week before the State Administration for Industry and Commerce's announcement, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a rare public apology to Chinese consumers on behalf of Apple in response to the barrage of negative press in China's state-run media slamming the Apple's warranty policy as discriminatory toward Chinese consumers.
“We realize a lack of communication in this process has led to speculation that Apple is arrogant and doesn't care about or value consumers’ feedback,” Cook said in the Chinese-language apology published on April 1. “We sincerely apologize for any concern or misunderstanding this has brought to customers.”
The scathing media attack against Apple began on March 15, 2013 on International Consumer’s Day when China Central Television (CCTV) aired an annual investigative special on consumers’ rights in which Apple was singled out as providing poorer after-sales service to Chinese customers, including offering only a one-year warranty instead of the legal requirement of two years. In the days after, several state-run news outlets piled on the company, such as the People’s Daily newspaper which called Apple “incomparably arrogant”.
China has become Apple's second largest market after the United States and the company told the Chinese government's news agency earlier this year that China would over take the US soon. According to a report released last November, Apple had 71.4 percent of the Chinese tablet market, with Lenovo at a lowly 10 percent and Samsung at a derisory 3 percent.
Many observers saw Cook's apology as less than genuine, pointing out that Apple simply cannot afford to lose China as its most promising market.
But many Chinese consumers, the supposed victims of Apple's poor policy, came to the company's defense.
On popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, many netizens raised doubts about the government's motive behind its relentless criticism of Apple. Some speculated that it could be part of the government’s strategy to steer people's attention away from real problems at home, such as food safety and environmental pollution.
Liu Liang [zh] (@陆亮的微博) summed up a prevailing sentiment online following Apple's apology:
: 苹果道歉了，但四川地震豆腐渣学校，无人道歉； 有毒奶粉，无人道歉； 隐瞒萨斯，无人道歉； 河南艾滋病村，无人道歉； 黄浦江几万头死猪污染水源，无人道歉。
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.
Prominent blogger Li Chengpeng [zh] (@李承鹏) used a vivid analogy to illustrate this:
When he doesn't want to hear the truth from someone, he tends to accuse that person of not brushing their teeth. When others pay attention to not brushing the teeth, they forgot to listen to the truth. It has been the trick for decades.
Others maintained that the Chinese government is practicing national protectionism. Some were furious with the government's selective blindness when it comes to poor services among domestic monopolies:
“Angry Uncle”：CCTV made every effort in damaging the reputation of Apple and went to the extent of punishing Apple after it made the apology. Please severely blast China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom [the three major telecommunication companies in China] in order to protect more customers’ rights. Why every 315 selectively turns blind to the telecom monopolies?
“Wo Shi Cong Huangyu”: CCTV takes a bite out of Apple and pressured Apple to change, from which we have a grasp of how powerful CCTV is — even more powerful than a crocodile. With such a power, why doesn't CCTV take a bite out of China Mobile and China Unicom, whose services are much worse than Apple!
When in China, do as the Chinese do
Apple is not alone in having been singled out for consumer rights issues by state-run media. In recent years, big foreign corporations such as Carrefour, Hewlett Packard, and KFC have all come under scrutiny.
The recent campaign against Apple even reminded netizens of Google's spat with China’s state media back in 2009. Unlike Google who refused to bow to Chinese government's policy of censoring the Internet and migrated its search engine out of China, Apple quickly yielded to Chinese political pressure, conforming like their Chinese counterparts:
“Faking Shyness”: Hearing about Apple's apology, I am reminded of the Google controversy in 2009. The company tried to adjust itself while holding its principles, but was still driven out in the end.
The “Rashomon” of Apple's apology
Netizen “Fox Shuo” (@阑夕), who has been following Apple's market strategy in China [zh], wrote an analysis of Apple's apology, which has circulated widely on China's social Web. The article [zh] compared the affair to “Rashomon“, a Buddhist story that depicts a world where everyone tells lies for the sake of their own benefit, and the truth is therefore confined:
The result is that [the Chinese government] which turns a blind eye to toxic pollution and pig cadavers cries out for justice for its people through attacking the foreign mobile phone company; while the arrogant company, although following the rules and closing the loophole of its service, has never shown real respect to the Chinese consumers. In its dictionary, we can only find a term called “user experience”. The established international image for this strange country is that consumers are represented by the central government, which has a final say on what rights can be fought for.