Apple loves China, but its government is not returning those feelings

A week after what appeared like a coordinated attempt by China’s state-run TV network to have celebrities badmouth Apple’s customer service in social media, a newspaper known as the Chinese government’s “traditional mouthpiece” publicly went after Apple(s AAPL) over another issue: the way it handles media relations. For a country so prized by Apple, why all the Apple hate lately?
The Wall Street Journal has a good post on the recent drama. It explains that these recent brushback pitches the state-run media outlets are throwing could be the government’s way of defending Chinese companies from being crowded out by foreign competitors, or its way of “doing more to encourage the growth of domestic smartphone companies and eat away at dominant foreign companies, such as Apple.”
In the most recent case, it’s not clear if Apple’s PR team in China is acting any different than their PR teams do everywhere else on the globe — let’s just say Apple is extremely choosy as to what kinds of requests it responds to.
This story is important because Apple’s increased presence in the country, and how its products and brand are portrayed, is critical to Apple’s future: CEO Tim Cook said he’s set his sights on China becoming Apple’s No. 1 market eventually. Right now, it’s No. 2, behind the U.S., but China’s growing population along with the company’s growing momentum in sales make it almost inevitable that the Chinese market will one day be the most important to the company.
But operating in a country run by the Communist Party of China, which has outsize control over domestic businesses, industries and press, means the rules are much different than almost anywhere else Apple has a significant presence. As with the copyright and trademark laws in the country, Apple’s relationship with the Chinese state-run media is going to be something to keep an eye on.