Photo: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
Photo: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

The iPhone’s smashing success in China has shown remarkable resilience, despite increasingly strong competition from domestic competitors. But while Apple’s flagship device recovered from a dismal showing in 2016 to regain market share in China last year, the bump in sales may have been the last hurrah, and the escalating trade war may mark a decisive turning point.

Whether or not Apple ends up being a direct target of retaliatory moves by Beijing, homegrown smartphone alternatives already provide comparable quality at a discount. The iPhone’s appeal is that it represents a status symbol, but it may only take a nudge to push the Chinese consumers who haven’t done so already to embrace a national symbol.

There have been signs of that nudge in recent days, with Chinese state media apparently tip-toeing towards a public campaign of criticism aimed at Apple.

It started last week when one article published online by China Central Television slammed the company for failing to block gambling advertisements and pornographic novels. The reports fell far short of calling for a boycott, but prompted speculation that a smear campaign – similar to those used in the past against Korean and Japanese products – was in the works.

Shortly after the reports, China’s state run Global Times dropped another hint when it ran the headline “Strong sales of US brands including Apple give China bargaining chips in trade row.”

“The eye-catching success achieved in the Chinese market may provoke nationalist sentiment if US President Donald Trump’s recently adopted protectionist measures hit Chinese companies hard,” the article warned.

The threat made headlines in the US this week, with financial news talking head Jim Cramer giving his two cents, which included a baffling suggestion that “Apple could pull out of China.” Outside of the US, China is the biggest market for the iPhone and several years ago was vying for the top spot before sales cooled. Cramer was apparently trying to make a point that China needs Apple, a large employer there, as much or more than Apple needs China.

“A boycott is something everyone expects will happen, and it doesn’t happen,” Cramer said on CNBC. “I’m not buying it. I don’t think there’s a boycott. […] They would target some other companies first,” he added.

What Cramer failed to mention, however, is that Beijing doesn’t even need to orchestrate a full-blown boycott. The trade war itself, and anger at the toll it might take on Chinese firms, could be enough to push tens of millions of smartphone buyers into the warm embrace of the likes of Huawei, ZTE or Xiaomi. At the same time, those firms have largely been blocked from access to the US market.

The fact is that, even without a smear campaign, or a trade war, Apple’s reign of dominance in China was already coming to a close.

Late last year, for the first time in the history of one annual survey conducted by FT Confidential Research, Huawei beat Apple as the number one brand smartphone buyers were planning on picking up.

In 2016 the iPhone lost its status as China’s top-selling handset for the first time since 2012. The pickup in sales last year, helped by a successful iPhone X showing, will be short-lived, analysts believe.

“We expect 2018 to be another tough year for Apple iPhone in China, as the overall smartphone market is slowing, compounding the already harsh conditions of reduced carrier subsidies and fierce local hardware competition,” Neil Mawston, executive director for wireless devices with market research firm Strategy Analytics was quoted by Forbes as saying.

Adding to Apple’s challenge in China is the trend among mobile carriers to cut subsidies for phone vendors. That means a higher price tag, which will squeeze the high-end handsets, which is all that Apple offers.

“If Apple wants to grow iPhone volume higher in China in the future, it will have to push down, not up, the pricing curve, to target more mid-range consumers who can no longer afford a full-fat iPhone because of diminished carrier subsidies,” Mawston said.

If a public smear campaign is in the works, the iPhone is not just going to have a bad year, it is going to have a bad rest of its existence in China. But even if Beijing holds its fire, Apple’s days of dominance in China are numbered.