China state media attacks on Apple inspire apology

Chinese state media attacks on Apple prompt an apology from CEO Tim Cook, showing that even the biggest bow when Beijing demands it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 5:14am

After the successful launches of the iPhone, iPad and iTunes, Apple this week responded to weeks of Chinese criticism with an ignominious new product: the iKowtow.

China blogger Bill Bishop - who has been following the relentless official criticism of Apple for allegedly being "dishonest", "greedy", "incomparably arrogant", as well as for having poor service and an anti-Chinese bias - was proved right.

Bishop commented that whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, China is following the classic recipe of "finding a kernel of truth and then blowing it into a mass media struggle session until the target bows down and pays obeisance. Apple can't win this fight, whatever the merits. Time for an iKowtow".

And so it proved to be. Chief executive Tim Cook on Monday produced a long, grovelling apology in which he admitted that Apple "has much to learn about operating and communicating in China".

In his letter, which appeared in Chinese on Apple's local website, Cook wrote that: "We are aware that owing to insufficient external communication, some consider Apple's attitude to be arrogant, inattentive or indifferent to consumer feedback. We express our sincere apologies for causing consumers any misgivings or misunderstandings."

Even though Cook apologised, the attack on Apple was sustained and concerted to such a degree that is raises doubts about the way that China does business.

The campaign started more than two weeks ago, with a prime time special on March 15 on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) to mark consumer rights day. Apple was one of several companies, including Volkswagen, accused of treating Chinese consumers unfairly. The complaint was that Apple offered lower levels of service, and charged for replacing back covers of faulty iPhones while in other countries it was done for free.

CCTV's complaints were then taken up by other state media. People's Daily carried front page editorial attacks on Apple, calling on its readers to "Smash Apple's 'incomparable' arrogance". The campaign was also taken up on Sina Weibo, in a clearly orchestrated campaign in which celebrities complained about Apple's standards of service. Some of the accusations were vicious. Peter Ho, a Taiwanese actor, purportedly posted this complaint: "Apple plays so many tricks with its customer service. I feel hurt as an Apple fan. Have you done right by [Steve] Jobs? Have you done right by the boys who sell their kidneys (to buy Apple products)? This is an example of big-name shops bullying customers. Publish around 8.20 pm."

Failure to remove the instruction about when to post the complaint, just after the CCTV programme had been broadcast, raised suspicions. But then Peter Ho claimed that his account had been hijacked and that he was not the author. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. CNN Money carried a report from its Fortune associate, whose reporter took the time to read and compare Apple's one year limited US warranty and its equivalent policies for China in Chinese.

"Although the language is different, I couldn't find any policy differences between them," reported Philip Elmer-DeWitt. "Both offer 14-day returns with full refunds. Both offer one-year warranties that either, at Apple's discretion, 1) repair the defective product, 2) replace it with a new or refurbished product or 3) return the customer's money. Both guarantees replaced or repaired products for 90 days or the life of the original warranty, whichever is longer."

If Apple is bad, other Chinese companies are far worse, particularly some of the country's protected state owned enterprises. That, as The Wall Street Journal was delighted to note, was the clear message when Caijing magazine polled its Weibo microblog followers.

"As a consumer, which arrogant company or companies do you want to smash?" Caijing asked, echoing People's Daily in a mocking tone.

"Please give specific names, so that we can announce a top 10." Wretched Apple did not make the top ranks.

Instead, China's telecom providers, its big banks, railways, electricity and water suppliers dominated the complaints, followed closely by People's Daily and state-owned media.

On Chinese social media, some bloggers also made scathing, sarcastic remarks.

One wrote: "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, that is not okay, that is far more serious."

Unabashed, the Chinese media have kept up their campaign against Apple, with People's Daily running critical front page articles for five days in succession. China Daily claimed in one of its reports that "Chinese law states that warranties on computer sales must be at least two years."

Last week, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) instructed trading standards bodies across the country to step up "contract supervision" on electronics manufacturers "such as Apple".

According to People's Daily, the SAIC instruction said:

"Local governments are required to … investigate and punish illegal activities in accordance with the law."