3 min read
The iPhone in China isn’t the status symbol it used to be
iPhone X has hit the shelves in Mainland China, but it remains to be seen if Apple’s new flagship will win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. This, however, will likely more depend on changes within consumers themselves rather than the actual technology the new iPhone X is offering.
iPhone has long been the phone in China. Men bought iPhones to propose to their girlfriends (and got turned down), Chinese nouveau riche, derogatorily called “tuhao,” bought golden iPhones to match their golden Ferraris, shopping platform Taobao hawked Apple-branded toilet seats, lighters, and slippers–this was the power of Apple in China. Chinese consumers have earned the reputation of having a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality caused by increasing wealth and standards and this has served Apple well. But this time, the new iPhone is priced double than the average salary in China.
“Compared to several years ago, I think the iPhone may be less of a status symbol, but that all depends on who you talk to,” said Jessica Rap, Senior Writer at Jing Daily which follows China’s luxury market. “Chinese consumers now have more options when it comes to phone tech. Discerning Chinese consumers, in general, are becoming less focused on branding and more concerned with quality buys. When local phone companies like Huawei and Xiaomi are offering similar technology for a much more affordable price point, it leaves consumers more money to spend on other purchases, especially when phones like the iPhone X are priced so high.”
Despite that, Rap did mention that Apple has remained among top gifts for gifting among Chinese millionaires just after Bulgari, according to the Hurun Report published earlier this year. This goes along with some commentators’ claims that the iPhone X will sell like hotcakes regardless of the price. Tech In Asia editor Charles Custer has said that Apple probably isn’t ever going to become the top smartphone seller by units sold again. It will, however, regain its crown as the ultimate status-symbol phone. Maybe they won’t get it in “tuhao gold” anymore, but “yuppie black.”
Of course, it would be very wrong to say that the sole source of Apple’s status in China is its potential to show off. iPhone is a great product after all, and many have recognized that. Apple has also made it hard to escape its ecosystem once you’re there.
“I found that the people I talked to tend to love the iPhone more or less because they’re hooked on the phone or the brand itself, so they ‘have to’ have the next one regardless of the price,” said Rap.
China has also imported from the US a somewhat puzzling reverence towards Steve Jobs and the brand he built. Apple fans are a strong bunch in China. Technology lovers too. But even among them, there are many who are reluctant to cash out $1000 for a new iPhone model.
“I know many of my friends placed an order when the pre-order was available,” said Kai, a long-time Apple buyer and technology writer. From his own point of view, getting a new phone seems unnecessary. He also doesn’t believe that iPhone is so much about status anymore.
“The iPhone showed up in Chinese market 10 years ago, I don’t think there are a lot of Chinese customers buying iPhone to show their economic capabilities. For example, the 11.11. [Double 11 or Singles’ Day, a shopping festival organized by Alibaba] is coming and Xiaomi and Huawei both show a larger influence than Apple in the smartphone industry,” he said. “Because of this, iPhone X truly has new and advanced technologies, but whether it can be applied in most of our day-to-day life and whether it is worth paying the highest price in the history for that, I hold a negative view.”
iPhone has indeed been falling behind other players in the Chinese market. Huawei recently surpassed Apple’s smartphone sales by shipping over 112 million phones in the first three quarters of this year. This is probably by far the loudest indicator that Chinese consumer are increasingly making more mature shopping decisions, and putting practicality before brand.
And while Apple fans are standing in line to buy their favorite product, another news that has largely flown under the radar are protests in front of Apple’s stores against the company’s labor malpractices during the past 10 years of iPhone production. Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) an NGO based in Hong Kong have called on Apple to take action against corrupt trade unions, student intern abuses, and extremely low wages in Apple’s suppliers’ factories. However, this is unlikely to dent the enthusiasm for Apple in China.