CCTV

How Apple's return policy in China differs from the U.S.

March 30, 2013: 6:07 AM ET

It doesn't, as near as I can tell. So what's all the fuss about?

Source:

Table: PED. Source: Apple Retail Store Purchase Policies

FORTUNE -- The big tech news in China this month, in case you missed it, is the state-run media's high-profile campaign against Apple (AAPL) and its alleged discriminatory return and repair policies.

For two weeks front-page stories in the People's Daily and broadcasts on China Central Television (CCTV) have blasted the company for its greed, dishonesty and "unparalleled arrogance."

The issue, according to a prime-time CCTV broadcast viewed by hundreds of of millions, is that Apple has been charging Chinese iPhone buyers first-world prices but giving them third-world treatment -- following one set of customer-service policies in the U.S. and a second, weaker set in China.

The proof, according to English-language accounts of the broadcast, is that defective iPhones brought in for service in China were being replaced not with brand new phones, but with iPhones cobbled together from refurbished parts.

We've read a lot -- and written a lot -- about what seems to be a government-orchestrated media crusade: About the fake messages of anti-Apple outrage fed to social media celebrities; about the blowback from Chinese customers more loyal to Apple than to their government; about the five theories that have been put forward by China watchers to explain what's behind it all.

Screenshots from CCTV.

Screenshots from the CCTV broadcast.

But we haven't read anything about the actual differences between Apple's customer service policies in the U.S. and China.

Apple spokespeople, well aware that China is now the company's second largest market, have declined to comment for the record. Instead, they point reporters to the company's published repair and return policies.

The two key documents are Apple's one-year limited U.S. warranty and its Chinese equivalent (available in both Chinese and English).

I've read them. You can too.

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

If Americans are getting iPhones cobbled together from refurbished parts -- just like the Chinese -- where's the discrimination?

One possible explanation, it occurred to me, is that the Chinese customers complaining on camera might have purchased gray market iPhones from shady resellers. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal's account of the CCTV broadcast, it focused only on Chinese resellers, not Apple-owned stores.

But that shouldn't make a difference. According to Apple, the company provides the warranty on its products no matter where they're purchased.

So what, exactly, is China's beef?

UPDATE: Several readers have pointed out that European Union consumer laws require Apple to honor claims of defective hardware for 2 years from date of delivery (See the UK for an English language version). If what the Chinese government wants is that kind of service, perhaps it should pass its own consumer protection laws.

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