The Apple Watch, the Rolex, and Buddhist Prayer Beads
How an anticorruption crackdown might complicate the new Apple smartwatch's prospects in China.
China didn't lack for excitement when U.S.-based tech company Apple unveiled a new high-tech watch on September 9 called the Apple Watch during a press event in California. It's not hard to imagine the app-filled device selling well in China, a country that loves its fancy timepieces. But the new product may face an uphill battle there, precisely for that reason.
China didn’t lack for excitement when U.S.-based tech company Apple unveiled a new high-tech watch on September 9 called the Apple Watch during a press event in California. It’s not hard to imagine the app-filled device selling well in China, a country that loves its fancy timepieces. But the new product may face an uphill battle there, precisely for that reason.
The coveted space on Chinese consumers’ wrists is surprisingly fraught territory, not least because of the extent to which wristwatches have become associated with corruption. In September 2013, a midlevel Chinese bureaucrat named Yang Dacai was jailed for corruption after his suspicious collection of high-end watches famously caught the attention of eagle-eyed Chinese netizens. The country’s bureaucrats quickly realized that photographs of them wearing expensive timepieces could be ruinous to their careers. In one sign of the times, in April 2013, a county official visiting a disaster zone in western Sichuan province arrived before cameras sporting a glaring watch tan. Netizens chortled, but he kept his job. Meanwhile, a top-down anti-corruption campaign begun in early 2013 has hurt the luxury watch market; Swiss watch exports to China have slumped in 2014 after reaching $1.9 billion in 2013. It’s unclear whether Chinese authorities or citizens will also view the Apple Watch, estimated at $349, as a luxury item worthy of anti-graft scrutiny. But it’s worth noting that $349 is still a considerable sum when the monthly income of low-level Chinese bureaucrats may only range from $300 to $600 per month.
That background helps explain why a September 11 article from BiaNews, a Chinese website focusing on business and tech news, claims that Apple Watch’s biggest threat may come from Buddhist prayer beads. The article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the numbers behind it are genuine: With 150 to 200 million adherents, Buddhism is the largest religion in China, and prayer bracelets are widely embraced both inside and outside of that group. The beads’ popularity among celebrities such as Hong Kong actor Jet Li, pop singer Xu Fei, and folk comedian Zhao Benshan has helped drive the traditional Buddhist prayer accouterment into mainstream fashion. The prayer bracelets are popular among ordinary Chinese men and women — most bracelets are priced from a few dollars for plain wood or glass beads to a few hundred dollars for pure jade. China’s high rollers like them too: in April 2010, a Qing dynasty era string of the beads sold at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong for $8.7 million.
The understated charm of prayer beads lends them a particular advantage amid China’s ongoing anti-graft campaign. A September 3 article in Sina, a major Chinese online media company, reported that Buddhist beads are now even a popular item among tuhao, a derisive term for China’s new rich. The beads "are not flashy, but lend a feeling of elegance," a subtlety of growing significance when overt displays of wealth are seen as increasingly unwise. State media have even given the prayer bracelets a recent endorsement — a September 11 article in the state-run Guangming Daily noted the "present fervor" over Buddhist beads, and praised the accessory for its long history in China and cultural timelessness.
To smooth the Apple Watch’s upcoming entry into China in 2015, perhaps Apple’s best approach would be to make the watch as low-key as possible. One netizen came up with a clever solution: Just mount the Apple Watch on a string of the prayer beads, and it will be a "guaranteed hit."
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr
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