China Consumer

Wrong target

Online backlash as Apple is bashed by CCTV

Wrong target

John F Kennedy once said that consumers “include us all” but that our “views are often not heard”. The former US president’s words must have resonated with CCTV. Since 1991, the state-run broadcaster has been running an annual segment exposing defective products, shady scams and shoddy service from well-known brands. It then showcases its investigations on March 15, World Consumer Rights Day. Millions of viewers across the country tune in to the show.

In 2011 CCTV revealed that products from Shuanghui Group, a major top ham and sausage producer, contained clenbuterol, a harmful chemical fed to pigs (see WiC110). The US banned the practice in 1991 and the EU followed suit in 1996.

Last year the programme alleged that fast food giant McDonald’s was selling food that servers had dropped on the floor. Carrefour was also accused of mislabelling chicken. Both firms later apologised to customers.

This year two more famous brands, Volkswagen and Apple, were in firing line. The broadcaster accused the German carmaker of selling cars with substandard gearboxes, which even caused accidents for an unspecified number of drivers (Volkswagen announced this week that it will recall more than 384,000 vehicles sold in China as a result of the report).

But it was CCTV’s report on Apple that got the most attention. During the segment, the broadcaster said Apple’s customers in China were getting a poor deal, as new iPhones returned for repair were being replaced with refurbished models on shorter warranties.

“Isn’t [Apple] earning Chinese peoples’ money? Outside China, they will give you a new back cover for free [when they replace your device] but they won’t change Chinese back covers for you. Why are Chinese consumers [treated as] less than others? This is very unfair to Chinese consumers,” CCTV thundered.

After the segment aired, various commentators turned to weibo to express their own dissatisfaction. Taiwanese actor Peter Ho, who has 5.4 million weibo followers, wrote: “Wow, Apple has so many tricks in its after-sales services. As an Apple fan, I’m hurt. You think this would be acceptable to Steve Jobs? Or to those young people who sold their kidneys [to buy iPads]?”

Ho then ended his message with the strange instruction: “Post around 8.20.” Sharper-eyed netizens immediately started speculating on the meaning of that last sentence, noting that a flood of critical posts about Apple were appearing on weibo at the same time. Rumours soon spread that Ho had been supplied with the text of his comment by CCTV as part of a campaign to smear the US firm. He later claimed that his phone had been stolen and that someone else had posted the message. But internet users were not convinced, thinking it more likely that Ho and other celebrities had been paid to post scathing comments.

Lee Kai-fu, former head of Google China and a popular figure on the Chinese internet, then confirmed on his microblog that “CCTV has invited influential internet figures to comment in accordance with a certain event but did not offer to pay them. I know because I was invited,” he wrote.

The revelations led to a backlash against CCTV, including its apparent targeting of foreign brands. In a blog titled ‘CCTV, you are no longer qualified to talk morals to me’, the outspoken writer Li Chengpeng warned: “Of course you can criticise Apple, but you cannot let all of these domestically-manufactured fraudulent goods off the hook when you could so easily investigate them, and then turn a harsh and uncompromising eye on a mobile brand that leads the world in overall quality.”

“Does it really matter whether Apple replaces back covers or not? Why wasn’t it [CCTV] exposing what truly matters to people such as China’s tainted milk powder, polluted air and contaminated water? Why wasn’t it exposing the flaws of China’s monopolistic state-owned enterprises rather than focusing on the wrongdoings of private companies that aren’t essential to people’s lives?” asked internet personality Zuoyeben.

“At least Apple has after-sales service. Who provided ‘after-sales support’ to the victims of tainted milk power?” he lambasted.

Keeping track: in issue 186 WiC reported that CCTV had accused Apple of unfairly treating China’s consumers. After two weeks of heated attacks by the country’s state-run media (People’s Daily subsequently called the tech firm “arrogant”), this week Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook finally caved to the pressure and issued a (rare) statement of apology. “We realise a lack of communication in this process has led to speculation that Apple is arrogant and doesn’t care about or value consumers’ feedback,” wrote Cook. “We sincerely apologise for any concern or misunderstanding this has brought to customers.” Bill Bishop, a China commentator, described Cook’s gesture as Apple’s first iKowtow. (Apr 5, 2013)

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