Chinese delegation touts ZTE Axon smartphone at welcome banquet for Xi in Seattle as patriotic brand-building continues

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 5:01pm

China’s social media has been abuzz in recent days with speculation mounting about which smartphone President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan will use during Xi’s first state visit to the US, which began Tuesday.

Touting the latest Chinese handset during formal visits overseas has become something of a motif and promotional gimmick for the couple and the domestic brands they support, a number of which are eyeing or already in foreign markets.

READ MORE: China's ZTE launches 'game-changing' Axon smartphone in US to build brand overseas

This patriotic trumpeting of homegrown tech dovetails nicely with how China is shifting gear from cloning cheap electronics to churning out its own high-end products on par with Apple and Samsung.

At a welcome banquet for the Chinese delegation at the Westin hotel in Seattle on Tuesday, many VIPs accompanying Xi proudly showed off one of ZTE’s Axon smartphones. 

ZTE famously poached a number of key personnel from fallen-from-grace Blackberry en route to producing its latest handsets, some of which it has hailed as game-changers in the industry.

An account called “Fans Group to Learn From Xi” on microblogging site Weibo, dubbed China’s Twitter, has already attracted nearly three million followers amid speculation that it might be run by someone close to the country’s top leader.

In the wake of the banquet, the account was uploaded with a series of photos of the affair including a close-up shot of the Axon on a dinner table in front of an official invitation card to the reception for Xi.

The trend of using such trips to showcase Chinese technology took off last year when Peng was photographed using a Nubia Z5 during Xi’s state visit to Germany in March. 

In the photo, a smiling Peng sits between Xi and Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn and uses a white-coloured version of the handset to snap a friendly football match between German and Chinese youth soccer teams in Berlin.

Nubia broke away from parent ZTE in June to list as an independent brand. 

But the First Lady has not always been a huge fan of Chinese phones: during a state visit to Mexico in 2013 she was snapped using an iPhone 5. 

This sparked fierce debate online in China, with many commentators questioning whether China's First Lady should use a foreign brand, especially when electronic devices pose such high potential security risks in terms of data protection. 

READ MORE: First lady indeed! Media darling Peng Liyuan is China's first presidential spouse to watch military parade from Tiananmen rostrum

In September last year, Xi presented ZTE’s GrandSII 4G smartphones to representatives of Tajikistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India during state visits to those countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin joined the trend in November by handing Xi a dual-screen YotaPhone 2 when they met in Beijing at APEC. 

ZTE launched Axon in the US in July, the first time the Chinese vendor has launched one of its flagship models in that market first. 

The company now ranks as the No 4 smartphone vendor in the United States with a 7.7 per cent share, according to the latest data from Strategy Analytics. It follows Apple, Samsung and LG, respectively.

With a retail price of around US$450, the high-quality Axon model can compete with Samsung’s more expensive S6 and Apple’s iPhone 6, which now retails for around US$600, according to David Dai, a spokesman for ZTE.

Huawei, another Chinese telecoms equipment giant, unveiled its new Mate S earlier this month and said the model will sell for US$732, with a premium version costing around US$848.