China, Apple Inc’s biggest overseas market and a country where foreign firms have suffered damaging boycotts following international spats, was the palce where the US tech giant found itself on the receiving end of a small, short-lived anti-U.S. protest last week.
In a rare instance of the tech firm being targeted as a symbol of perceived injustice following an international ruling against Chinese territorial claims, a handful of unofficial Apple stores were picketed and social media users encouraged each other to destroy their Apple goods.
Citing the roughly year-long slump in sales of Japanese cars after a diplomatic dispute that prompted large protests and boycotts, observers have expressed concern about the impact on Apple in the long term even though the protest was small.
“There’s not much Apple or any other foreign firm can do to prevent such patriotic protests. These incidents happen every few years,” said analyst Nicole Peng at researcher Canalys, who sees no impact to Apple’s sales from the recent protest.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As Apple competes with domestic makers of cheaper phones such as Xiaomi Inc and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, in a climate of weakening consumer spending and slowing economic growth, China is the world’s biggest smartphone market and Apple is increasingly reliant on its growing middle class.
Brushes with regulators is adding to Apple’s challenges. Last month its iPhone designs were ruled to have infringed a local firm’s patent and its online book and film service was blocked earlier this year.
Compared to a year earlier, Apple’s sales in China fell around 25 percent in January-March.
The country of origin for Apple, which in turn was regarded as the root of a perceived affront, formed the basis of targeting it in the latest protests.
Accusing the United States of turning the Philippines – which filed the case – against China and prompting local media to call a Hague Court a “puppet” of external forces began after the court found no legal basis for China’s claim to most of the South China Sea earlier this month.
A week after the verdict, urging customers not to buy the genuine Apple goods on sale, over 100 protesters picketed four unofficial Apple dealers in Suining in the eastern province of Jiangsu for about three hours.
“They chanted, ‘boycott American products and kick iPhones out of China. But nothing really happened: no fights, no smashing,'” store owner Zhu Yawei told Reuters.
With pictures of what users described as their smashed iPhones – a luxury product in China widely considered a status symbol and anti-Apple comments flooding microblogging site Weibo, a video of the protest went viral on Chinese social media.
However, with state-controlled media also calling for restraint, among the vitriol was just as much support.
“It’s cheap nationalism and outright stupidity. But if you were to offer me an (upcoming) iPhone 7, then I would gladly smash my iPhone 6!,” said Shan Mimi, a 23-year-old assistant at a Shanghai law firm.
Accompanying her comment with a photo of a damaged handset, one young Chinese woman on Weibo said she had smashed her iPhone. She later told Reuters she had lied.
“I didn’t smash my iPhone. All I did was find a photo (of a smashed handset) on the internet and let off some steam. Boycotting Apple would only make Chinese people lose their jobs – many work for Apple,” said the 21-year-old, calling herself L-Tin.