In China, if you really want to know what’s happening, ask your driver. Xiao Lin assured me, a mere 15 minutes into the drive from the airport, that the iPhone is dying in China; Huawei phones are booming. He had some pointed questions for me, too.
Did Americans use Huawei phones? Was Huawei popular in the U.S.? No, I said, we’re accusing Huawei of spying on the West. You’ve heard about the Canadian situation, I asked him? He knew. Then he stopped talking and turned up the volume on Hotel California. His taste in American music is wide-ranging.
It appears we won’t have to wait to learn how the Chinese government will champion Huawei over Apple because the citizenry will do it for them. The arrest of Meng Wanzhou will do more to boost Huawei’s cellphone sales in China than Apple’s widely publicized miscalculations in the Chinese market. The Huawei conflict only compounds the glum financial reports that Apple’s iPhone sales in China tumbled nearly 20 percent in the final quarter of 2018. Nothing can boost or defeat sales like a dose of nationalistic pride—just ask the makers of red baseball caps.
I asked Xiao Lin (aka “Tony”—it’s the wrong English name in every way) if the iPhone was losing popularity in China and he responded with a hearty thumbs down and very clear words: “less popular.” Did the Oracle of Omaha make a mistake buying 75 million shares of Apple last year? Time will tell. But Apple’s too-pricey phones in China (where they’re still mostly assembled) will continue to appeal only to the conspicuously consumptive classes—and now it might even lose them.