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No smashed windows as Apple rolls out new iPad in China

The unveiling passed off peacefully, unlike earlier product launches where fights broke out as the emotions of Chinese consumers spiralled out of control.

Employees at an Apple Inc store assist a customer in Beijing on Friday as Apple officially started selling the new iPad in China.
Employees at an Apple Inc store assist a customer in Beijing on Friday as Apple officially started selling the new iPad in China.

BEIJING // Compared to previous Apple product launches in China, yesterday's unveiling of the new iPad was a low-key affair.

There were just a few dozen people queuing for the 8am opening of the capital's main Apple outlet, and while television crews were on hand to capture their words as they emerged from the store, things passed off peacefully.

During earlier product unveilings, the Apple store in Beijing's Sanlitun shopping district, reportedly the highest-grossing Apple branch in the world, has witnessed fights and smashed windows, and been pelted with eggs, when the emotions of Chinese consumers - and the "scalpers" who buy devices and sell them on at a profit - spiralled out of control.

Cautious to avoid similar incidents, Apple asked customers to make appointments online if they wanted to collect their new iPads yesterday, and as the product has been available overseas for months, the most fanatical Apple enthusiasts in China will have bought an unofficial import already.

While it was subdued yesterday, the Apple juggernaut in China appears only to be gathering speed.

China is the California-based company's second-largest market after the United States, and sales are rising fast, reaching $12.4 billion (Dh45.5bn) in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in the first half of this year, almost as much for the whole of 2011.

This popularity comes despite the fact that even the cheapest iPad on sale yesterday, at 3,688 yuan (Dh2,114), costs more than the average monthly wage in China for a new university graduate, let alone a migrant worker.

Remarkably, Apple has just six official stores in China: two in Beijing, three in Shanghai and one in Hong Kong, although there is a large network of official resellers.

The brand is so popular in China that the country also plays host to fake Apple stores selling unofficially imported products, although the authorities shut some after they were exposed on the internet.

For some, the appeal of Apple comes from the products themselves.

"It's very easy to use. Surfing the net is simple. It's about the practical applications," said Li Xiangyan, 37, who works in the petroleum industry, as he brandished his iPad.

Yet sometimes the enthusiasm shown for Apple in China appears to be about more than just the devices the company sells. In particular, the company's late co-founder, chairman and chief executive, Steve Jobs, is revered.

After its release last year, the Chinese-language version of Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs was even available in 7-Eleven convenience stores, which normally do not sell books, and pirated English and Chinese copies still enjoy brisk sales on the capital's streets for just 15 yuan each.

Fan Chao, 29, who bought an iPad yesterday, said many Chinese people admire Jobs for the way his company "didn't stop at the status quo and always gives customers surprises".

"I think one of the philosophies of Steve Jobs was to challenge things. In a lot of Chinese people's mentality, it's something against their world view and values. Steve Jobs' concepts are very refreshing and inspirational," Mr Fan said.

The perception of Apple as being "devoted to innovation", in Mr Fan's words, contrasts sharply with how many in the country view local firms.

"When you look at Chinese companies, they do a lot of copying, but they don't invest a lot in research and development. They just care about their short-term interests and profits," Mr Fan said.

Yet it has not all been plain sailing for Apple in China. The US firm recently paid out $60 million to a Chinese company called Proview Shenzhen following a dispute over the rights to the iPad name in China that delayed the launch of the new model.

Also, the working conditions at factories in China run by Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products, have been criticised by campaigners for long hours, poor working conditions and low pay. Some suppliers have also come under scrutiny for their environmental records.

Yet it appears the enthusiasm of the Chinese public for all things Apple has been affected little.

"Generally speaking, the reaction by the European consumers, the American consumers has been much more obvious. There were lots of people setting up online petitions or they expressed concerns that they didn't want Apple products from a sweatshop," said a spokeswoman for Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, a Hong Kong-based group that in May released a report into working conditions at Apple suppliers.

"In mainland China, the civil society is not as well developed. I don't really see the consumers in China are so reactive [over] the labour rights issues at Apple suppliers."