I got my first iPhone during Chinese New Year in early 2012. It wasn’t anything I’d aspired to own. I wasn’t particularly techy, nor could I afford the brand as a graduate with a starting salary. But at a dinner with an old friend of my father’s, the friend gave me, along with other knickknacks, an iPhone 4. My gift came with a caveat, however: It wasn’t the sought-after 4S that had caused a frenzy around the country after its release in January. Mine was a simple iPhone 4 — released in 2010, and by then considered already past its prime as a formal gift.
That meant I was almost certainly a secondary or even tertiary receiver of the phone — China’s gift-giving culture is all about regifting — but back then, the Apple brand carried enough cachet that my father’s friend still saw it as good enough to give a close friend’s daughter, if not quite prized enough to present to a business partner. That was back when Apple was still the phone to own for a Chinese person on the make, and when people like my father and his friends — mostly older, and in senior positions in large organisations — were still caught up in the legend of the Apple product, even though most of them, including him, had no idea how to use most of the features.
That didn’t matter; it was enough to know that iPhones were “the best.” Their global reputations came with an assurance of both status and quality. What’s happened in the interim? A lot. When Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, warned investors on Jan 3 that the company was facing slowing sales in China, the wider world seemingly greeted the news that Apple had lost its China mojo with shock. But for those who are smartphone users in China, the news just confirmed what we already knew: China’s domestic brands have made huge strides in the years since 2012, creating new features and products that take into account what Chinese users want, for a small fraction of the price.
Apple, meanwhile, has mostly failed to localise or reinvent itself, on the assumption that global cachet would be enough. The homegrown groundswell began with a little-known brand called Xiaomi, which burst onto the scene in the early 2010s as one of the first brands in China to have its own operating system, and it offered high-speed processing on the cheap. At first it appeared to cater to a completely different market than Apple. Selling entirely online, Xiaomi offered both a low-end model — the Redmi for as low as 699 yuan (then under $150) — and a higher-end model that was still far cheaper than the cheapest iPhone (less than 2,000 yuan, then under $350).
But with time, the useful features on Xiaomi products, as well as those of its competitors like Huawei and OPPO, combined with the price, began to outweigh the increasingly limited glamour of the iPhone. I myself transitioned to a high-end Xiaomi from an iPhone in early 2014 after a young professional friend of mine, who worked in marketing in Shanghai, raved about the Xiaomi Mi Note, which is one of the big-screen models, or “phablets,” that have long been popular in China and East Asia, where many prefer the bigger screens — Huawei’s latest measures a whopping 7.2 inches — ideal for taking selfies and watching TV dramas. (Apple released its Plus series in late 2014 with larger handsets, which did send its sales shooting up in China — but also added $100 to an already expensive price tag.)
Apple also long resisted the rise of another important local feature: the dual SIM card system, a component that may sound boring but for Chinese people has become essential. In China, where many young people have never owned laptops, phones have become all-in-one devices — part television, part computer, part phone. Transitioning between two SIM cards on all other cell brands is a seamless process: one card for streaming and downloading at cheaper rates, the other one for making calls. Growing international tourism has also raised demand for phones that can accommodate a second, foreign SIM — and yet for years, Apple didn’t budge. The company finally gave in to the dual SIM card in the form of special models for China and Hong Kong last fall.
It’s telling that the main example of Apple localising its products to China in the last few years was a special model iPhone that was plated in gold. First introduced in 2015, it was a clear play for the Chinese market, and was, admittedly a huge hit on the mainland. Many joked that the gold iPhone was targeted at the “tuhao,” a recent term that roughly translates as “tasteless nouveau riche” and that mockingly refers to the wealthy who feel the need to show off. The colour was even given the name “tuhao jin,” or “tuhao gold.” But the allure of gold plating — a feature focused not on user experience but aesthetics — goes only so far, it seems. And it may not be enough at this point to keep even the “tuhao” loyal. Huawei, China’s largest smartphone maker by market share, recently overtook Apple to move to second place globally.
Its popularity among the wealthy and business class at home has shot up in recent years; its prices have been steadily rising as it shifts focus toward higher-end products. Many upper-middle-class Chinese who once owned iPhones have since switched to Huawei — including my dad. As China has moved online en masse, it has, perhaps, surprised some analysts who believed that the drive for high-end brands as status symbols would drive decision-making for years into the future. It turns out that Chinese consumers care about user experience, too (and price, of course). But the iPhone hasn’t lost all of its luster. A civil servant friend of mine was still offered a brandnew iPhone 8 as a “gift” in 2016; I’ve yet to hear of anyone who was bribed with a Huawei.