In Which I Launch a Righteous Crusade for Justice in the Wangfujing Apple Store, Beijing, China

Josh Freedman
May 2, 2016 · 8 min read

If you are a foreigner in China who speaks even the slightest bit of Chinese, the first three sentences of every conversation are identical. The simplest poorly pronounced ni hao elicits effusive praise about your intelligence. You assure your conversation partner that your Chinese is, in fact, quite poor; they respond with further praise or genuine disbelief. The first few times I had this interaction, right after I moved to China, I kept messing up halfway through: I could not properly demur because my Chinese was not good enough to understand that I was being complimented on my Chinese.

You swear to yourself that you will not let the constant flurry of undeserved compliments get to your head. Your language skills — amazing! Your ability to use non-fork cutlery — impressive! Your ability to enjoy fresh, delicious local cuisine — without parallel! But it invariably does: what is meant as encouragement seeps into a pervasive sense that your ability to perform basic tasks gives you a path around any and all barriers in your way. We claim to not want to be treated as special, but of course, deep down, we find it hard to refuse. Privilege, like cheap wine at a catered reception, is constantly on offer for no reason except that you happened to show up.

This, I believe, was my state of mind when I set out to for the Beijing Apple Store to fight the paradoxes of modern capitalism filled with the fervor of righteous justice.

Even on a cold Monday morning, there was already a line outside of store waiting for it to open. A burly security guard stood watch while a crowd milled around outside. Inside, like at many Chinese businesses before opening hours, the manager delivered a pep talk to his sea of employees, all clad in identical navy blue Apple t-shirts. When the clock hit ten, the sea parted and formed a bridge on either side of the entryway. The crowd jostled for space. A countdown ensued, the doors opened, and the navy blue sea applauded as we rushed into the brightly lit, modern behemoth.

The rush through the door was like the start of a marathon: we tried to define our place in the pack despite all going the same direction. I kept pace as we rushed up the three-floor spiral glass staircase. Frantic employees encouraged us to line up — ‘pai dui!’ — somehow wrangling the mass of customers into a wormlike arrangement that looked like it was based on the concept of a line. At the front of the line, the navy blue-clad employee held out her iPad and asked me why I had come in. My phone, I said. And what’s wrong with your phone, she asked. Everything, I replied. She decided to classify me as “problems with battery.” I felt satisfied by this classification. All I had to do was wait an hour and forty minutes — and don’t be late.

It all started eleven months prior in a Beijing taxicab in the early afternoon. Having just arrived in China, I scrambled to navigate, alternating between looking at my phone and the nondescript skyscrapers stretched out along Third Ring Road.

And then I somehow left my phone in the backseat of that cab, because at 1 pm on a Thursday I have the same ability to keep track of my possessions as a very intoxicated college freshman after a party.

At the phone store the next day, I surveyed the display case. China’s top mobile phone company, Xiaomi, is less than five years old. Like Samuel Slater, who launched the American industrial revolution by copying British factories and machinery, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s first products were difficult to distinguish from iPhones. But in the years since, Xiaomi has built out an extensive line of its own products, as have a series of other Chinese competitors. Next to Xiaomi were Huawei, ZTE, OnePlus, and more, all offering affordable, sleek new mobile phones that are popular domestically and in developing countries around the world.

And then there were the Apple products.

When an Apple product is finished being assembled in China, it is shipped back to the United States. It is then sent right back to China, where it is subject to heavy Chinese import taxes. New models of the iPhone sell for $1200 or more on the mainland. Apple products sold in China, it turns out, are both made in China and considered imported goods.

These imported goods are now one of the country’s most ubiquitous status symbols. When young urban Chinese think of America, they think of the iPhone. The demand is so high, and potential for profit so large, it creates opportunities for arbitrage, such as when a man tried to sneak across the Chinese border with 94 iPhones strapped to his body.

I weighed my options. A cheap, durable Chinese phone? Or an outdated iPhone 4S for $400?

I walked out with a brand new, ridiculously expensive iPhone 4S and a case painted with autumn leaves — the only case available in the entire store that wasn’t bejeweled. I felt satisfied by this purchase.

Less than a year later, my new iPhone had become so slow as to not function. As I sat waiting in the Apple Store for my allotted hour and forty minutes, I warmed up my Chinese by thinking about relevant troubleshooting vocabulary. I would, I thought to myself, be able to smooth-talk my way to a solution.

The meeting with the Genius started off without controversy. We identified what type of phone I had and reviewed the problems.

“The problem is that you have a 4S,” the Genius told me. “That’s an older phone.”

I explained to him that I had purchased the phone less than a year ago.

“It doesn’t matter when you purchased it,” he said. “It’s an old model. The new software is no longer relevant.” I tried to protest, but it went nowhere.

“Apple runs a global system,” he said. “We can’t change…all phones are required…there’s nothing we can do…”

We quickly turned to metaphors. Chinese is full of ways of describing what is going on without actually talking about it. Where English has a metaphor, Chinese has two; where English has no metaphors, Chinese still has two.

“Say you bought a car,” the Genius explained. “If you bought an old model car, it’s going to be slower than a new model car. Even if you buy a new version of an old model car, it will still be slower than the new model.”

“Let’s take two cars,” I said. “We have a brand new older model car, and we have a heavily used older model car. They are the same model, but will they work the same? The new car, even if it’s an old model, will still drive.”

I asked to see a manager. Two managers came over. It was like good manager, bad manager, except that both managers were really good. They were both friendly. They were both patient. They wanted to find a solution. I, however, was on a crusade for justice.

The car metaphor resurfaced, because apparently all metaphors involving consumer products must relate to cars. Numerous engines were replaced and driven at varying speeds. At some point, many hours in, it became clear that I was ruining their lunch break. They wanted to leave. Nobody in the store could change Apple’s policies. Even if everyone treated me like I was special because I was a foreigner trying to argue with them in Chinese, I wasn’t special enough to break the larger institutional forces at play. We were all defeated.

Another Genius was called over to help me. He reset my phone, said everything was fine, and sent me on my way.

When I met with a friend for coffee a few hours later, I noticed my phone was low on battery. Soon after, I went to run an errand; the battery, doing nothing, was draining like a bathtub. The phone was worse than before.

A wave of righteous indignation welled up inside me as I biked ten kilometers along Beijing’s wide boulevards back to the Apple store. In my head I planned out my triumph: I would storm back into the store. I would throw my phone on the impeccably polished wood of the Genius bar and deliver an eloquent soliloquy about the grave injustice that was being served. I would make the right amount of fuss — enough to indelibly leave my mark, but not enough to make a fool of myself. As I biked, my anger spilled over into harsh rebukes of all of the other seemingly grave injustices in my path that represent daily life in Beijing: people not following street signs, people nearly running me over, people actually running me over. Everything was to be yelled at by me, for I was on a mission.

I arrived at the Apple Store and climbed the stairs. By stair five or six I started to have my doubts. By the middle of the second flight I knew that I was not going to make a fuss. I was going to meekly ask for whatever I could get. I was coming to terms with the fact that there was very little I could do in this situation. In a country where I am usually empowered by being different and special, I was finally brought back to earth — fittingly, of course, by an American business. There were fixed rules, and I was no longer so lihai — amazing — that I could wiggle through. My best option was to simply take whatever I could and get out.

Coming to this conclusion was strange for me, but it is one that is found easily in modern Chinese society — related not to something as inconsequential as a phone but to the core of people’s livelihoods. The country has opened up economically and socially since reforms began in the late 1970s: as evidenced by the Apple Store, surrounded by other expensive foreign brands, sitting in the middle of the capital city. But except for a handful of idealistic young people and true crusaders for justice, like human rights lawyers and labor activists who are constantly on the precipice of being jailed, or worse, most others have run headlong into the one rule far more rigid than those of any multinational corporation: in modern China, you don’t touch domestic politics (bu yao gao zhengzhi). Under the shadow of Deng Xiaoping’s statement that some people have to get rich first, for most Chinese citizens it is still the best option to focus their efforts on getting whatever they can for themselves and their families. There’s no use thinking too much about politics, they say, because there’s nothing they can do to change it. Even as they decry a decaying social fabric, they see little good that can come from jeopardizing how far they have come — and how far they still have to go — toward a vision of a stable, prosperous, middle class existence.

As I waited, I chatted with the Genius who had come over to handle my case. We talked about life and China and computer products; he was trying to leave. Canada had recently started an “express entry” program for educated immigrants, and he was one of thousands of young Chinese who had applied. Another representative came over and we chatted a bit in Chinese; I halfheartedly tried to argue about my phone again but it devolved into just thanking them for being nice to me, the weird foreigner causing an incident over something so trivial. And our conversation, like so many other individual interactions, started by me being treated as special.

“You learned Chinese so fast,” he said to me. “You must be so smart.”

I finally had a good answer. “How many smart people bought an out-of-date iPhone 4S in late 2014?” I asked him.

He thought about it for a bit. “Yeah, you’re right, not very many.”

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