Illustration: Liu Rui
The Chinese launch of the iPhone4S was suspended Friday as fights broke out outside the Apple store in Beijing. The angry crowd, who'd braved the freezing temperatures for hours, came close to rioting, throwing eggs at the store and trying to break windows.
A significant number of those queuing at the Sanlitun store were migrant workers or students hired by scalpers. With some wearing red ribbons or yellow caps to identify themselves to each other, the special buying teams were well organized in a dramatic bid to snatch as many new iPhones as possible on the first day of the launch on the Chinese mainland. Scalpers were expecting to make up to 500 yuan ($79.2) of profit by reselling each of these highly coveted gadgets.
But the suspension of sales ruined the scalpers' business. They still had to pay the queuing students and workers they'd hired for their hours, and more disputes ensued when their pay was cut significantly.
The drama drew the attention of the Western media, with The New York Times and The Washington Post swiftly covering the incident online.
The launch of a new Apple product draws crowds of fans all over the world. But most of them don't riot like a group of drunken football supporters after the home team has lost.
Some said the frenzy among Chinese Apple followers is a result of the company's deliberate strategy of "hunger marketing" by limiting the supply in China. It sounds reasonable. But as a multinational corporation whose business reaches every corner of the world, Apple can easily apply "hunger marketing" everywhere. Why is it such a successful strategy in China? Is it simply because of the sheer size of the Chinese population, or the swelling pocketbooks of the Chinese?
The existence of a huge army of scalpers indicates that the potential profits of the Apple market are huge. And Chinese consumers seem willing to fork over even larger amounts than Apple fans elsewhere to get their hands on a shiny new device.
Apple fans may be equally gullible in their pursuit of the latest toy wherever they live. But aside from the pursuit of the latest electronic fashion, Apple worship in China has some local characteristics. The love of Apple is part of the Chinese enthusiasm for foreign-made luxury goods.
Nobody needs a 5,000 yuan handset, but for many Chinese, the pride of owning the luxury is more important than the functionality of the object. That's why they'll blow two months' income on a gadget. They might not be able to drive the same Mercedes as the rich, but they can carry the same LV bag.
When the iPhone4S was launched in the US, Canada and especially Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, mainlanders were mobilizing all their resources and connections to get their hands on one. As demonstrated by the queues of Chinese tourists in London or New York this holiday season, who bypassed famous attractions to hit Harrods or Macy's, Chinese consumers seem to have a particular enthusiasm for overpriced foreign brands.
In every society, every country and every generation, there will be a number of people who go crazy about certain fashions. It is not so strange for China to have one of the world's biggest group of Apple cultists. The worship of Apple is no less reasonable than the worship of actual religious idols. Maybe the situation only reflects the lack of idol in Chinese society: without other idols to worship, Apple fans put their collective faith in Apple.
The author is an IT industry commentator based in Beijing. email@example.com