Why My Chinese Dad Switched From an iPhone to a Huawei

And what that tells us about the fate of Apple in China.

.. 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.
.. 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 localize 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 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 localizing its products to China in the last few years was a special model gold-colored iPhone. First introduced in 2013, 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 color was even given the name tuhao jin, or tuhao gold.

But the allure of gold-colored 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.

 

 

China is Losing the New Cold War

At first glance, it may not seem that China is really engaged in an arms race with the US. After all, China’s official defense budget for this year – at roughly $175 billion – amounts to just one-quarter of the $700 billion budget approved by the US Congress. But China’s actual military spending is estimated to be much higher than the official budget: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.

In any case, the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.

If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.

On the macro level, China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to

  • rapid population aging,
  • high debt levels,
  • maturity mismatches, and the
  • escalating trade war

that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.

Moreover, while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.

.. The problem for the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.

Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.

The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”

Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries. Despite early signs of trouble – which, together with the Soviet Union’s experience, should give the CPC pause – China seems to be determined to push ahead with the BRI, which the country’s leaders have established as a pillar of their new “grand strategy.”

An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return. According to AidData at the College of William and Mary, from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.

Now, China has pledged to provide $62 billion in loans for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” That program will help Pakistan confront its looming balance-of-payments crisis; but it will also drain the Chinese government’s coffers at a time when trade protectionism threatens their replenishment.

Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.

How China Views the Arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou

Few people around the world today are likely to recognize the name of Lin Weixi, a Chinese villager whose death helped launch the First Opium War, the conflict that came to define China’s relationship with the West in the modern era. In early July of 1839, as tensions between Britain and China were heightening over a trade imbalance, a couple of British merchant sailors in Kowloon got drunk on rice liqueur and beat Lin, who subsequently died. The British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, arrested the sailors, but refused to turn them over to the Chinese authorities, an act that China regarded as a violation of its sovereignty and an offense to justice.

.. Huawei is the largest telecom-equipment manufacturer in the world, and it recently overtook Apple as the second largest manufacturer of smartphones, after Samsung. Huawei has also emerged an increasingly powerful player in the tech industry. This year, it announced that it would increase its annual expenditure on research and development to as much as twenty billion dollars, which would place it among the world’s top R. & D. spenders, with Amazon and Alphabet.

.. Huawei’s investment in innovation has been persistent and purposeful. According to the head of geotechnology at Eurasia Group, Huawei is the only company that can currently produce “at scale and cost” all the elements of a 5G network, heralded as the next frontier of wireless communications. As such, it is positioned to take the lead in what’s been called the fourth industrial revolution.

.. Washington has long been worried that Chinese telecommunications equipment can be used for intelligence purposes. Huawei was founded, in 1987, by Ren, who was formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. Last week, the Times reportedthat “Counterintelligence agents and federal prosecutors began exploring possible cases against Huawei’s leadership in 2010” and that “as they investigated Huawei, F.B.I. agents grew concerned that company officers were working on behalf of the Chinese government.” In 2012, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report concluded that Huawei “was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party,” and that the United States “should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.” The Times also reported that “the top United States intelligence agencies told senators this year that Americans should not buy Huawei products.”

.. All this is viewed very differently in China, partly for reasons that date back to the nation’s devastating defeat in the First Opium War. In the eighteenth century, the British wanted tea much more than the Chinese wanted anything from the West, resulting in a chronic trade imbalance and a huge outflow of silver and gold from West to East. To staunch that flow, British traders decided to flood the Chinese market with opium from India, violating Chinese laws that forbade trafficking of the narcotic. As efforts to enforce the ban broke down, the British handily captured the city of Canton, before marching up the Chinese coastline. Within two years, Great Britain had made significant headway into the Chinese market, pried open a series of ports, and extracted concessions that the Qing dynasty was helpless to deny.

.. The war taught China two lessons it has never forgot.

  1. The first was that it had failed to recognize the threat of Western technological prowess. While Britain was energetically cultivating the use of steam in the first industrial revolution—and the steam-powered ships that propelled its victory in the war—China had sequestered itself, falling behind in mastering the technology that became the modern world’s instrument of power. President Xi Jinping’s push for technological supremacy in the twenty-first century can be seen as a continued revision of Chinese tactics.
  2. The second was that principle matters little in an international war of wills. In 1840, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu was tasked with stamping out the opium trade. He sent a letter to Queen Victoria, signed by the Emperor, in which he made an appeal to her conscience. “The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit,” Lin wrote. “You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why?

Lin’s letter, however, reportedly never reached the Queen, and, in Parliament, the political and economic justification given for war elided ethical concerns. Aggression against the Chinese, it was argued, was entirely about defending Britain’s honor. Many agreed with the sentiments of Samuel Warren, a novelist and later a Member of Parliament who, in a widely distributed pamphlet titled “The Opium Question,” wrote, “In the name of the dear glory and honour of old England, where are the councils which will hesitate for a moment in cleansing them, even if it be in blood, from the stains which barbarian insolence has so deeply tarnished them? . . . Why are not there seen and heard there, by those incredulous and vaunting barbarians, the glare and thunder of our artillery?”

.. Even if people in the West have heard of Lin Weixi, it’s doubtful that they would see any connection between the case of a villager killed by a couple of drunken British sailors and that of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive accused of fraud who is able to post a multimillion-dollar bail and live under a sort of house arrest in one of two opulent homes that she and her husband own in Canada. They would certainly see a sharp distinction between China’s Party-managed judiciary and Canada’s independent courts. But a Western court’s attitude toward a Chinese citizen will be understood in China as an echo of a time when Western politicians exploited an asymmetric international order. How the nations involved choose to proceed at this juncture, two hundred years later, may come to define the terms of Sino-American engagement for many years to come.