BEIJING - A friend in Beijing recently told me a story about the time a China Telecom technician came over to install the Internet connection for her Apple laptop. The man, an experienced worker, puzzled over the slim, silver device. He picked it up gingerly, holding it away from his body as one might inspect a suspicious package. After a few minutes, he set to work, but then grew frustrated when he couldn't find the familiar pull-down menus to configure the connection.
That was just three years ago. Today, it's highly unlikely that any Chinese technician would be similarly flummoxed. Since the first Apple Store opened in Beijing on July 19, 2008, the company has made astonishingly rapid inroads into the Chinese public's pocketbooks and imagination. In any high-end coffee shop like Starbucks or Costa Coffee in central Beijing or Shanghai, the ratio of Apple devices (iPhone,iPad, MacBook, etc.) to non-Apple devices is often more than 1-to-1.
Apple now has four flagship stores in China -- two in Beijing, two in Shanghai -- and plans to open an additional store in Shanghai and its first Hong Kong location within a year. There are also hundreds of licensed Apple resellers in major Chinese cities, as well as many more unlicensed venders (including the elaborate fake "Apple Store" in Kunming unmasked two weeks ago by an American blogger). And these stores are packed with customers: As the company's chief operating officer, Timothy Cook, revealed on a recent earnings call with reporters, "Our four stores in China [are], on average, our highest traffic and our highest revenue stores in the world." Each attracts as many as 40,000 people daily (to accommodate crowds, Apple's stores in China are designed to be much larger than in the United States). From 2010 to 2011, revenue in greater China has ballooned 600 percent, totaling $8.8 billion for the first three quarters of fiscal year 2011.
And yet the same company that enjoys such a sterling, virtuous image in the global press and that's now making buckets of cash in China is precisely the one singled out by China's fledgling civil society groups for its alleged indifferenceto labor rights and environmental enforcement, as well as an apparent tendency toward secrecy and obfuscation. In a nutshell, just as Apple has been consolidating its success in China, it has been acting depressingly like the Chinese Communist Party.
So how did this happen? As in the United States, Apple's extraordinary success in China owes to the fact that it's much more than a device maker; it's a dreammaker. But it has had to edit its dream a bit to translate to a Chinese audience. In the United States, after all, Apple launched its first Macintosh computer with an iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad in which, with a nod to George Orwell, a roomful of pale, listless drones stares unblinkingly at a projection of their leader on a giant TV screen. "Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives," his voice crackles. "We have created for the first time in all history a Garden of Pure Ideology … secure from the pests of any contradictory force.… We are one people, with one will, one resolve." Just then, a chiseled blonde in red track shorts sprints down the center aisle and hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering the illusion of unison. The voice-over intones: "On January 24, Apple Computer willintroduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."