Mao Would Have Loved Apple’s China Apology

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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This morning, 17 days after China’s state media began a campaign against what it characterized as Apple’s Inc.’s discriminatory warranty and repair policies, and 12 hours after Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook apologized for them, I stopped by the Apple store on Shanghai’s Huaihai Road.

I’ve visited many times in the past, and it was as packed as ever with passersby checking e-mail on iPads and clerks running credit cards through readers. My efforts to strike up conversations with customers at the Genius Bar regarding Cook’s apology were met with indifferent shrugs and a couple of “it’s not important to us” dismissals. Cook appears to have known this already. “Close to 90% of our customers expressed satisfaction with our repair services,” he wrote in his apology letter. “And customer satisfaction is the most important metric by which Apple measures its success.”

The problem for Cook and Apple is that customer-centricity isn’t the only metric necessary to measure success in China. Most successful companies in China -- whether large or small -- also need to demonstrate that they’re capable of government-centricity. That is, they need to be able to please the powers with authority over them, or at least prove themselves so inconsequential as to be not worthy of attention.

Unfortunately for Cook, it’s not up to Apple to decide whether or not its efforts at pleasing Beijing have been successful. That’s a metric judged by officials in Beijing, most of whom have no relationship to Apple beyond the expensive phones that many carry in their pockets. Among that influential group are individuals capable of focusing China’s huge Communist Party and state-owned media infrastructure onto a single propaganda goal. Sometimes those goals are positive -- such as a campaign in January to end food wastage -- and sometimes they are quite negative, indeed, as Apple has learned over the last two-and-a-half weeks of incessantly vicious coverage in state-and Party-owned newspapers.

What, precisely, could Apple have done to displease China’s propaganda apparatus (or whoever controls it)? Speculation runs rampant in the foreign media, with some suggesting that the Chinese government has targeted Apple in retaliation for U.S. government restrictions on Chinese technology companies. Others figure that China is trying to clear the way for native technology companies to capture Apple’s market share in China. Curiously, few appear willing to believe that Chinese officials might be so offended by Apple’s alleged use of refurbished parts in the repair of Chinese iPhones (in contrast to consumers in the U.S., who are simply given new phones), warranty periods that are shorter than those offered in other countries, and warranty policies that appear to violate Chinese law, that they’d be willing to launch a propaganda campaign against the company.

To be sure, it’s over the top, especially from an American standpoint. But in China, where the perceived disrespect and slights from foreigners are often viewed through the prism of China’s colonial past, they have political force. Thus Apple, by virtue of its size and foreignness, is at perpetual risk of being viewed in terms totally at odds with how it likely sees itself.

Consider, for example, the following tweet from Ran Xiang, a well-known nationalist commentator with more than 680,000 followers on the Sina Weibo platform. Since Saturday, it’s been reposted more than 1,500 times:

If Apple isn’t oblivious to this kind of sentiment, it certainly doesn’t feel much need to respond to it. But in maintaining silence in the face of much milder accusations of favoring American customers over Chinese, it runs the risk of sparking slow-burning tempers -- especially those possessed by government officials and Chinese netizens sympathetic to their occasional patriotic excesses.

Notably, official and popular anger (albeit popular anger that might very well have been ginned up) at Apple’s repair and warranty policies had been brewing for months, with little to no effort by Apple to quench it. In June 2012, for example, the company was condemned by the China Consumers’ Association for replacing damaged parts in iPhones with refurbished parts. In July 2012, a state-sponsored Chinese consumer group added Apple to its “integrity” blacklist for similar repair and warranty issues. And in August 2012 China’s state-run media played up a consumer lawsuit against the company for unequal repair and warranty policies. Then the complaints went quiet for a while.

But anyone who has paid attention to China’s long history of targeting foreign brands for alleged wrong-doing (all the while allowing Chinese-owned companies to get away with similar or worse) had to know that the campaign wasn’t over. In fact, it was likely to be kicked up a gear on March 15, 2013, the date of China Central Television’s annual “Consumer Rights Gala,” a widely watched special during which foreign and Chinese companies are singled out for their anti-consumer behavior. And that’s precisely what happened: Apple’s warranty and repair policies were featured offenders. Predictably, Apple remained quiet in the wake of the accusations, and thus the campaign against it began.

Much of the campaign has been draped in seriousness, with an unerring focus on the allegedly discriminatory warranty and repair policies that rankled officials in 2012. But there are moments when the seriousness gives way to absurdity, such as a March 21 “exclusive” by Xinhua, the state news agency, which accused the company of luring 20,000 Chinese college students into “usury,” according to the official English-language translation. But the purest invective is found in the opinion pages, where an article such as “Destroy Apple’s ‘Unparalleled’ Arrogance” is allowed to run in People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

The excesses of this campaign have likely undercut its effectiveness on the roughly 90 percent of Chinese whom Cook claims were satisfied with Apple’s service. On Chinese social media, the campaign has been roundly criticized and mocked, with some prominent microbloggers going so far as to compare it to a Cultural Revolution-era propaganda campaign. In one notable case, a microblogger photoshopped an image of Steve Jobs, head hung low, with a white placard around his neck, onto a classic Cultural Revolution poster. The text on the placard reads “The Obstinate Profiteer Jobs.” Below it, in the margins, the poster declares: “Fight the People’s war well, criticizing and denouncing Apple and Jobs.”

As satire goes, it’s chilling. As prophecy goes, it’s accurate: Tim Cook, playing the part of the persecuted profiteer, apologized on Monday. In doing so, he offered up revised warranty and repair policies for China, in effect conceding the truth of at least some of the accusations against his company, while trying to bring an end to this sorry episode in Apple’s otherwise illustrious recent history in China.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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