Mass Incident at the Apple Store: China Social Unrest Jumps the Shark

January 13, 2012

Social unrest in China is no joke. There are tens of thousands of protests/demonstrations/riots every year in response to major problems such as environmental degradation, local corruption, and land swindles. Since I’m a responsible long-term resident of the Middle Kingdom, I would never make light of the legitimate concerns of the masses.

Indeed, there are some mass incidents (that’s the official term, by the way) that, due to the petty grievance that inspired the action, sully the image of all the others.

Case in point, a whole lot of nutjobs waited overnight at the Beijing Apple store in hopes of getting their hands on a new iPhone 4S (which stands for “for shame”?).

Disclaimer: I own an Android smartphone running a Victorian-era operating system, so my judgment in these matters is suspect.

Eventually things got ugly:

We’re now reading reports of fights breaking out between competing gangs of scalpers in the country, each hoping to get their hands on large quantities of Cupertino’s latest smartphone. The conflicts have been significant enough to attract the attention of Chinese police, and we now hear that the Apple Store in Beijing is keeping its doors locked in attempt to make the crowds leave.

And then even uglier:

Enraged Chinese shoppers pelted Apple Inc’s flagship Beijing store with eggs and shoving matches with police broke out when customers were told the store would not begin sales of the popular iPhone 4S as scheduled.

OK, first of all, I should point out that these “enraged shoppers” were a mixed bunch. Some of them were your run-of-the-mill Mac geeks, but others were pros, as in professional scalpers there to get a jump on the competition.

I have little sympathy for either the mindless Mac drones or the working stiffs who were paid to wait in line. And I do mean “stiffs” — it was something like minus ten degrees last night. I can certainly understand their frustration at waiting in sub-zero temperatures for many hours, only to be told that their sacrifice was in vain, but at the same time, what the hell were they doing out there in the first place?

Some Reuters reporters were brave enough to actually talk to these poor schmucks and got these quotes:

“We’re suffering from cold and hunger,” a man in his 20s shouted to Reuters Television. “They said they’re not going to sell to us. Why? Why?”

“I got in line around 11 p.m., and beyond the line the plaza was chock full with people,” said Huang Xiantong, 26, outside the store. “Around 5 a.m. the crowds in the plaza broke through and the line disappeared entirely. Everyone was fighting, several people were hurt,” said Huang, who wanted to buy a new iPhone for his girlfriend. “The police just started hitting people. They were just brawling.”

Cold and hunger? Next time, pack a goddamn sandwich and wear a hat, Einstein. Wanted to buy an iPhone for his girlfriend? Christ. If I was stupid enough to stand outside in freezing cold just for the chance to buy a phone for my wife, she’d divorce my ass on grounds of mental incapacity (or alternatively, put me in a facility for the occasionally coherent). I’ve never been accused of being a romantic.

So who’s at fault for this fiasco? There is plenty of blame to go around:

1. Apple – they screwed up the product launch. Someone at the genius bar needs to do some self-criticism.

2. Scalpers – I know you need to make some cash before the holidays, but can you go do it somewhere else please? You’ve already fucked up train travel in this country, now your’re messing with retail?

3. Mac Geeks – just go away and get a life. Unless you’re waiting in a queue outside a hospital, there’s no good reason to be standing outside in the cold overnight.

4. Cops – should never have allowed this thing to escalate. Let’s hope that the idiots throwing eggs are now having a nice cup of tea with their friendly neighborhood PSB official.

I’m not sure if this whole thing is good or bad publicity for Apple. Perhaps some of both.

“Hey, our customers are fighting for the chance to buy our shit” — sounds good.

“Hey, our customers are stupid enough to fight for the chance to buy our shit” — sounds even better.

“Because we screwed up and our stupid customers started fighting, attracting the attention of the (always nervous) government, we are now on the State-level shit list, slotted in between Google and Richard Gere” — sounds pretty bad.

Might I suggest a new procedure for the next product launch? First, a Real-ID system, maybe a DNA check. Second, institute a mandatory holding period. Anyone who purchases a new iPhone must wait a minimum of three months before the phone can be resold to a third party. Third, metal detectors and a cavity search at the entrance to the store. Anyone found with eggs on his person will be forced to hard boil and eat them in the grand tradition of Cool Hand Luke. Fourth, anyone moronic enough to queue up overnight in sub-zero temps will immediately be sent to a mental health facility for a minimum of 48 hours or until a competency hearing can be convened.

I bet all those environmental and anti-corruption activists out there who have literally risked their lives protesting societies’ injustices are not amused at all.

19 thoughts on “Mass Incident at the Apple Store: China Social Unrest Jumps the Shark

  1. Oliver

    Stan, I came to your blog to get a witty, informed rundown of today’s shambles, and you didn’t disappoint – the most entertaining thing I’ve read for 12 months (disclosure: I’m no Apple fanboy).

    Keep up the great work.

    1. Stan Post author

      Thanks. Reuters et al was responsible for the “informed” bits. I will take some credit for the entertaining aspects, though.

  2. S.k. Cheung

    Queuing up in china is a hit or miss proposition at the best of times. Add in cold and hunger, and they didn’t stand a chance. Though I gotta say, who in their right mind brings raw eggs to a product launch? That’s just weird.

    I’m no devoted apple geek (though I have some of their stuff). But as i understand it, threat of a body cavity search may not be an adequate deterrent.

  3. Robert Park

    To be fair, I don’t think Apple experienced this in any other country. And I remember the iPad launch going quite peacefully in China. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Apple should have expected this.

    1. perspectivehere

      You’re giving Apple too much credit. Actually they went through a tumultuous scene with lines, scalpers and police in Hong Kong a few weeks earlier with Apple Store launch of 4s.

      http://topics.scmp.com/news/hk-news-watch/article/Professional-queuers-disrupt-line-for-new-iPhone

      This blogger has an interesting take on it, especially the economics of scalping in Hong Kong:

      http://micgadget.com/17535/exclusive-police-scalpers-and-users-clash-at-hong-kong-apple-store-for-iphone-4s-video/

      Limited supply and unmet demand means a HK$1,000 – $1,500 per phone difference in price between the grey market and official market. This means people in the scalping business can hire queuers, pay them $500 per day to wait for phones, and hope to make enough in grey market sales to cover the queuer costs, if all goes well. Not sure what happens if the queuer is unable to get a phone because Apple refuses to sell or the police disperses a line for obstructing pedestrian access. Would the queuer get paid? Unlikely. In Hong Kong many of the queuers appear to be unemployed locals and South Asian/SEA immigrants. It seems pretty darwinian at the bottom of the food chain. Any labor law protection for these people?

      More generally, whose fault is it if someone gets injured? If someone gets injured in a line (or scrum) in front of an Apple Store, and the injury is caused by the crowd (e.g. someone is trampled), would Apple Store be subject to liability for damages? These are known as “Black Friday Injuries” in the US.

  4. King Tubby

    Apple spokesperson: What we had here was a clear failure to communicate.

    The bad elements outside should have be given a spell in a psych hospital to help them get their heads right.

    LOL

  5. D

    As for the reaction of the Beijing police to this incident: there is a local police station literally 80 meters around the corner from this Apple store in Sanlitun. Between the Apple Store and the police station, there are usually 2-3 people selling hashish on the street. If the police never bothered to stop the drug sellers outside their doors, it’s no wonder they would drop their teacups, pinch out their cigarettes, and postpone their poker game to deal with the capitalistic fracas at Apple.

    1. Stan Post author

      How is it that you know about these hash dealers . . . ? When I walk by there, I’m usually checking out the police dog, which is often on display outside that station.

      1. allroads

        Hash dealer: will you look away for one lamb skewer?
        Police Dog #1: ra uh

        Hash dealer: will you look away for two lamb skewers ?
        Police Dog #1: ra uh

        Hash dealer: will you look away for three lamb skewers?
        Police Dog #1: ro kay

  6. LOLZ

    Most of my Shanghai friends think those who wait outside are scalpers. They are everywhere in China. I am actually an Apple fan but some of the apple fanboys are equally insufferable.

    The problem with Apple is that they only have 4 stores in China, and the demand is high. Maybe they can try online ordering system like it is in the US.

  7. nulle

    Apple stores should limit purchases to two per person AND have a online reservation system similar to US.

    I find Apple much less fault compared to the scalpers and the cops for the incident. If people would properly queue up like elsewhere, the Apple store would happily open and everyone’s happy.

  8. null and void

    A contact of mine who works at the Apple Store in Sanlitun said they only observed three police uniformed officers monitoring the situaion the entire night, whereas over a 100 officers stationed themselves at the Xidan store. I don’t know why such a disparity in numbers would exist for such a large crowd with a history of breaking stuff at the Sanlitun store during Apple launches. Since Chinese contracted security gaurds are absolutely useless for crowd control (primarly because Chinese law doesn’t allow them to clear public spaces like the Village in Sanlitun) history repeated itself at Sanlitun. The scalpers there are ruthless in their obtainment of their product. I cannot but wonder what, and if, there is a relationship between them and the police in Sanlitun. Point taken in a previous post on the drug issue in Sanlitun. I’m offered hash almost everytime I go down to the village, 30 feet from the cops little PAICHUSUO on the east side of the street.