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China's Apple fans lament cult figure Jobs' resignation

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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China reacts to Jobs' resignation
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Jobs enjoys cult status in China, one of Apple's biggest customers
  • Apple products like the iPhone and iPad are affordable status symbols in China
  • Fake Apple stores selling fake Apple products have sprung up around China in recent years

"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

(CNN) -- Liu Jinhua says she almost choked when she heard the news that Steve Jobs has resigned. "I couldn't believe what I heard," says the private entrepreneur. "Then I chose to not to believe it."

Liu is a confirmed Apple fan. At home and in her office, she and her husband own four iPhones, two iPads, three Mac laptops, two Mac desktop computers and two iPods. "For a long time I was absolutely speechless," Liu recalls.

Thanks to customers like the Liu family, Apple has been doing big business in greater China, which includes mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Apple executives say the company's revenue in greater China reached $8.8 billion as of Q3 this year, up over six times in year-to-date revenues. "And so this has been a substantial opportunity for Apple and I firmly believe that we're just scratching the surface right now," said Timothy Cook in a recent phone conference with industry analysts.

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Sales of iPhones in China have grown rapidly. Tim Cook, the incoming Apple CEO, said: "In the first half, we did over -- just slightly under $5 billion in greater China in revenue, which -- it is about 10% of Apple, to put it in perspective. It wasn't but a couple of years ago that that number would have been less than $2 billion. So, it's a sea change."

Apple has even surpassed Lenovo, a home-grown brand in China, in total sales.

The company's four stores in China are doing particularly well. Apple's CFO Peter Oppenheimer noted that "four stores in China were, on average, our highest traffic and our highest stores in the world."

China's wealthy consumers have embraced Apple products, analysts say, largely because of Jobs' charisma and business acumen.

Business analysts say Jobs is a cult figure among the iPad generation in China. Jeremy Goldkorn, an expert on Chinese digital media and founder of media and advertising website Danwei.org, said: "Bill Gates used to be the business leader that you'd most often hear young Chinese people talk about but that was mostly because he is very rich. Steve Jobs is not only very rich, but he's also responsible for the iPhone and iPad, which in a few short years have become highly desirable gadgets that project status."

Carrying the iPhones, iPods and iPads have become a conveniently portable way of projecting status.

Apple products are a symbol of status for its Chinese fans. For many Apple owners, a Chinese analyst says, "Apple products indicate posh, wealthy, creative and well-educated."

Goldkorn thinks Apple's success in part lies in its products' expensive prices, which has given Apple the status of a luxury brand. "Just like large Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos on handbags, using an iPhone in public is an easy way to show you have money to burn."

Rarely have such foreign products made such an impact on China's market. Years ago, Nokia and Motorola dominated the local cell phone market, but analysts say they never had the cult status of the iPhone.

"Louis Vuitton and Audi are foreign brands that have had a huge influence here," said Goldkorn, "but most LV products are for women and you need quite a lot of money to buy an Audi, whereas an iPhone is an affordable luxury and everyone uses a cell phone."

China now has more than 800 million cell phone users.

Not long after the news of Jobs' retirement broke out in China Thursday morning, it became a hot topic on Sina Weibo, China's top social media site.

A typical message said "three apples have changed the world. One seduced Eva, one awakened Newton, the third one is in the hands of Jobs." Another message posted by @ Jinzheng said "no matter what happens to the third Apple, the world became wonderful because of your (Jobs) existence."

For many senior managers in Chinese high-tech companies, Jobs is a role model. If a CEO wears jeans with T-shirts tucked in instead of a suit and tie, said one Chinese observer, his sartorial taste will likely to be called "Jobs style".

China's successful entrepreneurs salute Jobs' genius. Zhang Xin, founder and co-CEO of SOHO China, the largest real estate developer in Beijing, said: "Jobs is a symbol of creativity, of entrepreneurship. I don't think there is another entrepreneur of our time who has more profound influence on the Chinese."

Zhang doubts that China will produce its own version of Jobs any time soon. "For China to produce its own Steve Jobs, our education system needs to reform to encourage creativity, to encourage students to challenge the authority, their teachers, and their books," she explained.

Meantime, some Chinese companies excel in imitation instead of Apple-style innovation.

Driven by quick profits, some Chinese companies have produced fake Apple products at prices much cheaper than the genuine ones.

Earlier this year an American tourist blogged about a fake Apple store in China's southern Yunnan province. From the pictures she posted online, everything looked like an Apple store, including the logo, the color, the display, even the employees' uniforms. But a closer look at the store revealed its dubious origin -- like the store's misspelled signage -- "Apple Stoer."

These imitations, analysts say, merely confirm the huge popularity of Apple brands and Steve Jobs.

To many Chinese fans, Jobs is the face of Apple products. In a sample survey on "how much impact Jobs' resignation will have on Apple" on Sina.com, some 52% voted for "drastic change! Apple has forever lost its soul."

But some Jobs admirers do not expect big changes.

"It won't affect Apple's China strategies", said Qu Xiaodong, a senior IT expert. "This is what Jobs is really smart at. He doesn't need many strategies for a particular country. As long as he makes the best products, customers from all over the world will fight to buy."

 
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