In Beijing's Wangfujing Apple Store, a Chinese customer looks at an iPhone 4S in one hand, with an iPad in other.
Credit: Feng Li

HONG KONG — Every year on March 15 — World Consumer Rights Day — China's state television runs widely watched exposes on companies it alleges are guilty of some seamy practice.

China Central Television, or CCTV, usually does such a good job of ginning up outrage that companies are forced to apologize, and their stocks take a huge tumble. (Just look at the program they ran on food safety at McDonald's last year.)

This year, CCTV really stepped in it. Their program on Apple raised concerns that the company has less fair phone-replacement policies in China than in other countries. But it all backfired when Taiwan-based star singer and actor Peter Ho posted a message on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, that blasted Apple and ended with the off phrase, "post around 8:20."

Netizens immediately pounced, accusing Ho — and a bevy of other celebrities — of participating in an astro-turfing campaign against Apple. Ho deleted the post, then claimed it had been sent by a hacker.

Then another celebrity, internet icon Kai-fu Lee, came out and said he had been approached by CCTV and asked to join in the Apple bashing.

Since then, the hashtag #PostAround820 has gone viral on Weibo.

Some users have theorized that CCTV was trying to pressure Apple into buying advertising, as many have noted that some companies that were previously attacked, such as internet giant Baidu, then went on to buy huge sponsorships of CCTV's New Year Gala, which would be equivalent to a Superbowl ad in the US.

As venture capitalist Xue Manzi wrote in a translation by Ministry of Tofu, "The difference between its Chinese New Year Gala and 315 Evening Show is, you can pay money to appear in one and pay money to avoid appearing in the other.

In fact, it's raised suspicions that this may be the tip of an orchestrated campaign against Apple, which competes against Chinese companies like Huawei. The iPhone has huge cachet in China as a luxury product, and perhaps more importantly, it's brought on a wave of smartphones that have given people unprecedented power to share information. This is something that the Communist Party would like to have under control.

Of course, this is highly speculative, but it has some precedent in Google, which came under such pressure that it pulled out of China in 2010.

If Apple starts to encounter unusual roadblocks in China in the near future, people may look on this little CCTV debacle as prophetic.

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