Why is China's state-run media targeting Apple? Five theories

March 28, 2013: 2:17 PM ET

Consumer protection? Negative marketing? Negotiating ploy? Payback? Squeeze?

The launch to the iPhone 4S in Beijing. Photo: M.I.C. Gadget.

The January 2012 launch to the iPhone 4S in Beijing. Photo: M.I.C. Gadget.

FORTUNE -- The drumbeat hasn't stopped.

Not only has China's Central TV been running regular follow ups to its March 15 expose on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone repair policies, but on Thursday People's Daily -- the Communist Party's official propaganda organ -- attacked the company for the fourth day in a row, devoting half a page to negative articles.

"One reported on a patent infringement suit lodged against Apple in a Shanghai court," according to the Christian Science Monitor. "Another recounted a People's Daily reporter's failure to secure an interview with an Apple executive in California, and yet another explained how Apple avoids taxes around the world. The paper lifted that last article from The New York Times."

What's going on? We've heard at least five theories:

  • Apple is behaving badly. It's possible that the company does in fact discriminate against Chinese users with second-rate return and warranty policies. We don't really know because Apple has done such a bad job explaining what those policies are. [See UPDATE below.]
  • Apple hasn't courted the right officials. That's also possible, although when he visited Beijing last year, CEO Tim Cook made a point of meeting Li Keqiang, and Mr. Li is now China's prime minister.
  • China is trying to bolster its domestic smartphone makers. It's true that there are a number of Chinese manufacturers fighting for a share of the domestic smartphone business, but none of them really compete directly with Apple's high-end phones.
  • China is trying to strengthen the hand of its state-owned mobile phone operators. China Unicom (CHU) and China Telecom (CHA) already sell iPhones, so the most likely beneficiary would China Mobile (CHL), the world's largest carrier and the only major Chinese operator that still hasn't cut a deal with Apple.
  • China is retaliating for Congress' treatment of Huawei and ZTE. Last year, the House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee issued a report labeling China's two flagship telecom companies a security risk and urging U.S. firms not to do business with them. This would be payback.

That last theory is the one the Monitor seems to favor. "Just enough time has elapsed that they can avoid it looking like tit for tat," Mark Natkin, director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, told the paper. "But they can make it plain that if you want to make things difficult for our companies, we can do the same for yours."

One last thought: It's also possible, as some have suggested, that CCTV was embarrassed when it was caught trying to stir-up public outrage by planting anti-Apple posts in the Chinese version of Twitter and that the various organs of Chinese state-run media have been trying to save face ever since by doubling down on their campaign. Seems far-fetched. Call it Theory 5.5. For background, see:

UPDATE: How Apple's return policy in China differ from the U.S. (Hint: It doesn't.)

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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