SHANGHAI — Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, took the unusual step Monday of apologizing to Chinese customers over the company’s warranty policy and said he would improve customer service in the country.
Apple’s apology late Monday was the latest twist in a strange spectacle that has unfolded in recent weeks in China over Apple’s warranty policies here, underscoring the challenges the company is facing as the country becomes an important market for its products.
Every year on International Consumers’ Day, China’s biggest state-run television network broadcasts an investigative report on how companies operating in China cheat or mistreat consumers. This year, on March 15, one of the targets was Apple.
China Central Television criticized the American company’s after-sales iPhone customer service in China and described how Chinese consumers were forced to pay $75 to replace faulty back covers, though such a replacement comes at no cost in many other countries.
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Apple did not immediately respond to some of the allegations, but other state media outlets stepped up their criticism over the next two weeks, raising the stakes for Apple in China, which is now the company’s second-biggest market after the United States. Soon after the segment aired, several Chinese celebrities piled on, posting harsh comments on China’s Twitter-like service called Weibo.
Then People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a series of editorials and articles, including one paper titled “Defeat Apple’s Incomparable Arrogance.”
Other state organs also joined the fray. China’s State Administration of Industry and Commerce, which has oversight of business practices in China, called for “strengthened supervision” of Apple.
And in recent days, evening television news broadcasts have included images of Chinese journalists being turned away from Apple’s offices in China.
Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., issued a statement in Chinese to the media Monday.
“We realize that a lack of communication in this process has led the outside to believe that Apple is arrogant and doesn’t care or value consumers’ feedback,” Cook wrote in the open letter. “We sincerely apologize for any concern or misunderstanding this has brought to the customers.”
Some media analysts and bloggers have called the media frenzy over Apple’s warranty policies bizarre because of the ferocity of it.
Several online bloggers, for instance, noted that Chinese celebrities who posted online shortly after the television broadcast on March 15 seemed not to be doing so spontaneously, but at the urging of the state broadcaster. The suspicions arose after one celebrity’s post ended with the line, “to publish around 8:20 p.m.”
Other analysts speculate that the continuing media blitz against Apple is aimed at showing what the government can do to American technology giants, even those as successful as Apple.
The criticism of Apple coincides with the Obama administration pressing Beijing on cybersecurity issues. A growing number American companies have complained about computer hacking attacks that seemed to be originating in China.
And earlier this year, several members of Congress moved to restrict two of China’s biggest telecommunications equipment makers, Huawei and ZTE, from doing business in the United States because of concerns that they could engage in espionage.
Sprint Nextel and SoftBank, its Japanese suitor, are expected to enter an agreement with U.S. law-enforcement officials that will restrict the combined company’s ability to pick suppliers for its telecom equipment and systems, like Huawei and ZTE, to allay national-security concerns.
Bill Bishop, a Beijing technology analyst and publisher of the online newsletter Sinocism China, said it was difficult to know what prompted the investigation by the state media, but he noted that Apple’s explosive growth in China may have outpaced the company’s ability to fully train and prepare its workforce and management team to deal with the challenges of the China market.
“Whatever the merits of the case, Apple’s not going to win here,” Bishop said in an interview Monday. “Apple can’t fight this.”
Anna Han, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said Cook’s apology letter was a smart tactic and a “very Chinese thing to do.” She compared it to public apologies plaintiffs sometimes ask for from defendants in Chinese courts.
That action, combined with the change in its warranty policy, “sort of takes the wind out of the government’s sails,” said Han, who advises American companies doing business in China. “It says, ‘We’re accused of something and we’re doing something about it.’ ”