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Apple’s 5G iPhone 12 spurs fever-pitch in China, but divided reaction

Apple chief executive Tim Cook says he is "really not sure the average person can tell you what the metaverse is".
Apple chief executive Tim Cook said "[VR is] something you can really immerse yourself in. And that can be used in a good way. But I don't think you want to live your whole life that way." Photo: Reuters.

Apple’s iPhone 12 launch drew mixed reactions in mainland China on Wednesday, with fans cheering a 5G model for their favourite brand, while others planned to wait for upcoming devices from local rivals like Huawei.

The much-anticipated Apple launch comes in the wake of Chinese Android-platform brands such as Huawei and Xiaomi having already rolled out higher-end 5G devices compatible with China’s upgraded telecoms networks. Some analysts felt the US giant is a bit late to the party. 

But the arrival of the iPhone 12 was feverishly discussed on social media in its second-largest market by revenue. With over 6 billion views, the tag ‘iPhone12’ ranked as the no. 1 topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. 

Asked if they’d buy the new iPhone, which will give Apple users 5G access in a market where such networks are already widespread, respondents to a Caijing magazine poll were almost evenly split: some 10,000 voted no, 9,269 said yes, and just over 5,400 said they were still considering it.

Available for orders in China from Oct. 16, the iPhone 12 will cost 5,499 yuan ($815) for a ‘mini’ version, rising to as much as 11,899 yuan for the top of the range. 

That price tag was also a hot topic, with many complaining it was too expensive.

“How is it this expensive even with no power charger or earbuds?,” one commenter said in reference to Apple’s announcement that it would leave out those components citing environmental reasons. 

Many Weibo users said they may put off ordering iPhone 12s to wait for the expected unveiling of Huawei’s rival Mate 40 Pro this month. 

Analysts bullish

Still, analysts said they were bullish about the iPhone 12’s reception in China, saying that the firm still likely had many loyal users who have postponed upgrading devices until the launch of the 5G-friendly iPhone 12. 

With the new model in view, research firm Canalys recently revised its forecast for iPhone shipments to China in fourth-quarter 2020 to a 14% year-on-year increase, a big swing from the 1% decrease it originally predicted.

“In China now, 5G is not a premium feature, it’s a must-have feature,” said Nicole Peng, who tracks China’s smartphone sector at Canalys. Peng said the 5G launch will “trigger a new wave of phone replacements” for Apple in China before the end of the year and in first-quarter 2021.

Canalys expects 50% of Chinese phone owners to be using a 5G device by the end of 2020, as networks and phone brands have aggressively pushed adoption. Only 29% of US phone owners will be on 5G devices by the same time.

Apple could also stand to benefit from a potential unravelling of its main high-end rival Huawei, which could see its smartphone division collapse next year due to US restrictions on its supply of chips. 

Neil Shah, analyst at Counterpoint Research, said he expects Apple stands to benefit “significantly” from the potential gap which will be left due to the US trade restrictions on Huawei to produce new phones at scale.

‘Recycled rare earth materials’

Meanwhile, the US tech giant said on Tuesday its newest iPhones would be produced using recycled rare earth materials, as part of a stepped up environmental initiative – to cut waste and use less materials, AFP reported.

The move, which has geopolitical implications, was announced as part of a series of sustainability actions and aims to build on Apple’s prior initiatives which include a pledge to be 100% carbon neutral in all aspects of its business.

Apple’s environment policy chief Lisa Jackson said the new iPhone 12 handsets “for the first time, we are using 100% recycled rare earth elements in all magnets including the camera, haptics and MagSafe (connectors).”

The announcement comes amid growing concern about e-waste from billions of smartphones as consumers upgrade to new models, and with growing political tensions over rare earth materials needed for many electronics.

Activists have expressed concerns about the environmental impact of rare earth mining, and some of the materials come from countries cited for labor and human rights violations.

China has been in the spotlight for its dumping of toxic waste in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, as Beijing drives global production of rare earth elements, and with Sino-US trade tensions, China has threatened to cut off the supply of some elements, raising fears of shortages.

Will Apple be targeted?

While the iPhone 12 launch appeared to go well, there has been growing concern that Apple could be vulnerable to geopolitical tensions between the United States and China.

Beijing is expected to unveil an ‘entity list’ that bars domestic companies from doing business with certain foreign companies amid industry speculation that Apple and other high-profile tech firms could be targeted.

Throughout the past year though, consumer sentiment has yet to turn negative on Apple, even as Huawei’s troubles have made headlines in China.

Apple’s unit shipments in China increased 35% year-on-year in China in the second quarter of 2020, according to Canalys. That made it the only top brand besides Huawei to see positive growth – a feat it achieved even without offering a 5G device.

Reporting by Josh Horwitz, Brenda Goh and Reuters’ Shanghai newsroom and AFP.


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