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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

China's Media Attack Leads To Apple Apology

Zhao Chen |
April 6, 2013 | 9:14 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Apple store in China. (Creative Commons)
Apple store in China. (Creative Commons)

Starting in March, Apple has gone under ferocious attacks by China’s state-run media for its discriminative customer service policy against China. In response, the U.S. firm posted an apology letter last Monday, apologizing for the misunderstanding of the company caused by poor communication and promising to better its after-sales service in China.

On March 15, the International Consumers’ Day, Apple was accused by Chinese Central Television (CCTV) on its consumers’ rights TV program of executing double standards in its after-sales policy in China as opposed to in other countries.

After that, People’s Daily, another mouthpiece of the Communist Party, censured Apple for being “dishonest, greedy and arrogant.”

The criticism was centered around two points: 15 days after a purchase, if there is anything wrong with the phones, instead of offering new phones to customers like in other countries, in China, Apple only offers revamped phones with every part replaced except the back cover; and Apple also didn't give consumers a new one-year warranty after the damaged phone was refurbished.

CCTV also showed in its investigative report of the consumers’ rights TV program that reporters were being turned away when trying to approach Apple’s staff members in China.

However, most Chinese people didn’t seem to buy the state media’s words. Many sympathetic micro bloggers expressed doubts on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, about the motivation behind criticism against Apple, saying the attack was an effort to steer people’s attention away from what the country is really suffering, like the issues of food safety, air quality, public health crisis, etc.

“Why make such a fuss about a tiny defect of Apple no one will get hurt from while downplaying the country’s real problems by which the whole population will be affected? ” one micro blogger complained.

Some said the China-Apple tug-of-war boils down to protectionism in nature. “The state media were taking an aggressive approach toward Apple in order to help Chinese companies to compete more closely with it over time,” said one micro blogger.

Another tens of thousands of micro bloggers vented anger, saying that by singling out Apple, the media helped to cover up the even poorer customer service of China’s telecommunication monopolies like China Mobile and China Unicom.

“Apple is unfortunately the scapegoat this time. Multinationals can easily fall prey to such government-led attacks. But why not chase after the domestic monopolies which are doing much worse?” one micro blogger said.

Despite such a spate of ferocious accusations, in a recent poll, 90 percent of Chinese respondents did not agree Apple is discriminating against Chinese customers.

Some analysts in China argued that there is no such thing as “double standards” in Apple ‘s after-sales policy. Tencent Comment pointed out even in the United States, the warranty policy is “repairing the Apple product using new or previously used parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability.”

Then why did Apple choose to provide Chinese customers with revamped phones with every part replaced except for the back cover? Tencent Comment said it is because China’s law stipulates if companies offer a new phone to replace the defected and damaged one a customer bought, the warranty should be renewed starting from the day the phone is replaced.

Without a new back cover, the replacement phone is not actually new, so, under China’s law, the warranty period still starts from the day the initial phone was purchased.

But some people argued that Apple doesn’t even need to offer such almost-new revamped phones in place of the damaged phones because it is not mandatory under China’s regulations.

“You don’t even get a revamped phone which is almost new in any other Chinese mobile companies if your phone has something wrong. Apple can just fix the damaged part as other Chinese companies do. In that regard, Apple’s customer service is one of the best compared with a lot of other companies.” said Siqi Li, a Chinese customer.

An ironic episode ridiculed by Weibo users in its aftermath took place on March 15 when lots of Chinese celebrities posted criticism on Weibo against Apple shortly after the Apple accusation was broadcast by CCTV.

But people noticed that one celebrity’s post ended with the line: “to publish around 8:20 p.m.,” suggesting the celebrities’ echoing Weibo posts were not spontaneous but at the urge of the state broadcaster.

One of the ridiculed celebrities named “Liu Yi Shou” wrote on his Weibo at around 8:20 p.m. on March 15: "Apple, you provide two-year warranty to Mac users in United States, but why only one year in China? Why play with the trick of 'double standards'?"

However, his rhetoric was soon countered by other micro bloggers’ clarification: globally, Apple provides only one-year warranty to Mac users, but in some countries like Australia and China, the mandatory warranty period for computers is two years; Apple displays in really tiny font on its website that it will adhere to the two-year mandate in those countries.

Beijing-based independent industry commentator Xiang Ligang told South China Morning Post, “There is nothing wrong with the practice, but Apple should inform consumers, which it doesn’t.”

The apology letter, signed by Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, was written in Chinese and posted to Apple's Chinese website on Monday. It underscores the increasing importance of China as the second-largest and fastest-growing market, with sales of US$6.8 billion in the December quarter, 12.5 percent of Apple’s total sales, according to South China Morning Post.

In the letter, Mr. Cook said that the company is aware that a lack of communication has led to the perception that Apple is arrogant and doesn’t care about customer feedback and that it would amend its warranty policies and give further training to Apple-authorized resellers on warranty policies.

The state-controlled media have changed their tune after Apple’s apology letter.

"The company's apology letter has softened the tense relationship between Apple and the Chinese market … Its reaction is worth respect compared with other American companies," said Global Times, a Chinese language tabloid published by People's Daily.

Some experts told The New York Times that the politics of targeting Apple may be more complicated since it coincides with the U.S. Congress pressures on Chinese IT ventures and its moves to restrict or forbid the use of Chinese IT equipment in the U.S. on safety grounds.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however, most industry observers do not think the recent fray will affect Apple’s sales performance in China because the product remains a fashionable symbol there.

Some are worried the Chinese government may push ahead with tougher regulation on foreign manufacturers like Apple. Recently the government claimed that they are formulating tougher laws to close the loophole foreign mobile devices company can take advantage of.  

The company has fallen under scrutiny in China in recent years, after a spree of suicides created scandal in China at Apple’s major assembly contractor Foxconn, coupled with an iPad naming right dispute that Apple lost in court.

A lot of Chinese people felt quite surprised by Apple’s apology since it rarely made apologies in China; it seldom even bothered to respond to the negative criticism and its late former CEO Steve Jobs never went to China when he was alive.

“If Jobs were still alive, he would never apologize,” one micro blogger said on Weibo.

Reach the Staff Reporter Zhao Chen here.




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