By Joanne Sum-Ping with research assistance by Susan Shao

After enduring weeks of attacks from Chinese state-owned media, Apple has announced a change in its warranty policy in China.  The attacks began on March 15 when China Central Television (CCTV) criticized Apple’s customer service policies during a special program observing World Consumer Rights Day.  CCTV’s report supposedly uncovered discrepancies between Apple’s warranty policy in China and its warranty policy in other countries.  According to the CCTV report, when Apple replaces faulty iPhones in China, it retains the back cover of the original phone unless the customer pays a fee to change the back cover.  This practice is supposedly to circumvent Chinese regulations that require extending the warranty by another year if the entire phone (including back cover) were replaced.   (Apple reportedly replaces the entire phone for free for customers outside of China.)

The CCTV special was followed by multiple attacks against Apple in state-owned print and internet media, such as the People’s Daily, which reported on the “scandal” for five days straight, calling Apple arrogant and accusing it of discriminating against Chinese customers.  English-language state media, such as the China Daily and the Global Times, followed suit.  On March 28, China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine demanded that Apple’s after-sales policies be corrected to comply with Chinese law, while China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce asked local officials to take action against violations of consumer rights, but without specifying which of Apple’s practices violated which laws.

In addition, CCTV (or one of Apple’s competitors) is suspected of having paid Chinese celebrities to drum up public support for the anti-Apple campaign.  Immediately after the March 15 television special, several celebrities with large followings on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) posted anti-Apple messages to their Weibo accounts.  However, Chinese netizens noted that one of these celebrities apparently forgot to delete CCTV’s instructions to “post at around 8:20” from the end of his message.  Weibo users soon began using the hashtag #postaround8:20 to mock the “820 party” of celebrities who are suspected of following CCTV’s instructions to post similar messages following CCTV’s report.

On Monday, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, issued an apology and announcement that the warranty policy would be changed so that the repair of a faulty iPhone 4 or 4S would extend the warranty by one year.  Apple stated that it appreciated the feedback it has received on its warranty policy and respects Chinese consumers.  Apple is a well-loved brand in China, and it seems unlikely that the negative media campaign will significantly affect its sales or reputation.

It is unclear why CCTV and other state news sources were so critical of Apple.  Commentators have speculated that the criticism was intended to force Apple to buy advertising on CCTV, as retaliation for the U.S. government treatment of Chinese telecom companies Huawei and ZTE, or to give Chinese brands a competitive advantage.  Chinese media have also recently criticized other foreign brands, such as Vera Wang and Omega, for charging Chinese customers for services provided free of charge in other countries.  Following this criticism, the bridal gown label Vera Wang rescinded its policy of charging Chinese brides-to-be to try on gowns.