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iPhone boycotts are a nationalist sport in China… just not a very successful one

Huawei CFO’s arrest sparks the same calls for an iPhone boycott that we’ve heard before

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

News that one of Huawei's top leaders was arrested in Canada and faces extradition to the US has shaken China. And, quite expectedly, some are already calling for a boycott of Huawei’s main American rival in the smartphone business – Apple.

Of course, CFO and deputy chairwoman of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Meng Wanzhou was not arrested because of their rivalry with Apple in smartphones. The daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei (and his likely successor) is under suspicion of enabling the company to evade sanctions on Iran. She facing extradition to the US and a 30-year prison sentence.

Huawei's chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou has been detained by Canadian authorities at the request of the US government. (Picture: REUTERS/Alexander Bibik)

Reaction in China has been strong -- and not only from official bodies. On China’s own Twittersphere, Weibo, some users have been calling for a boycott of Canadian and US goods and even stopping all Chinese people from traveling to Canada.

How Weibo became China’s most popular blogging platform

But the object that seems to have drawn the most ire was the iPhone. Social media is full of calls to boycott Apple’s products. Several Weibo accounts have posted what appear to be notices from local companies vowing to support local products and ditch Apple.

One Shenzhen-based company promised a 15% subsidy to buy a Huawei or ZTE phone and a 100% penalty if an employee purchases an iPhone. Another firm went so far to promise US$72 to each employee owning a Huawei and fire those that want to keep their iPhone. Abacus was unable to verify whether the notices were genuine.

Should Apple be worried? Not quite.

Since the start of the China-US trade war, calls for boycotts of Apple products has become almost a sport on China’s social media – and not a very successful one.

Even before the trade tensions, pictures of Chinese smashing their iPhones circulated the web after the international court in the Hague overturned China’s claim on several small islands in favor of the Philippines in 2016. (There were also pictures of angry Chinese citizens rallying in front of KFC, to the bewilderment of their chicken-loving compatriots.)

US brands are not the only ones suffering the wrath of online mobs. Korean companies suffered after China complained to South Korea about deploying the THAAD Anti-Missle System with the US, while one of the most destructive reactions was seen against Japan over an island dispute in 2012, with mobs smashing Japanese cars (owned, of course, by Chinese people).

But even though Chinese state media has occasionally participated in criticizing Apple –  pressuring the smartphone maker to remove 25,000 illegal gambling apps – calls for boycotts usually come from the fringes.

Dual SIM slots and gold iPhones: Five ways Apple is embracing China

One fervent supporter of Apple boycotts, for example, is Rao Jin, founder of the online news site April Net -- previously known as “” Nationalistic outlets such as these have found a fertile ground among a certain population in China. A senior Chinese envoy in the US, Li Kexin, recently admitted that China is nurturing a “ nationalist bubble.”

Still, many netizens are ready to ridicule the boycott call, saying that if they were real patriots they would remove Windows from their computers and they certainly shouldn’t use Android -- made by Google -- on their Huawei phones.

As for Apple, the Cupertino giant may have less to fear from nationalists and more to fear of its own tactics in China. Over the last two years,  Apple has been losing ground in one of its biggest markets to local competitors such as Huawei and Xiaomi.

A recent report from Morgan Stanley said that the iPhone market in China is weak not because it favors locals like Huawei, but because buyers are taking increasingly more time to replace their phones. This signals that Apple will have to create more appealing products if it wants to remain one of China’s favorite brands.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.