Image of pigtailed Apple customer service employee upsets Chinese netizens

A viral video wrongfully claimed that Apple assigns customer specialists with “pigtails” to service the Chinese market. PHOTOS: REUTERS, APPLE.COM

BEIJING – An image of a customer care employee sporting a “pigtail” on Apple’s website has triggered outrage from Chinese netizens accusing the tech giant of cultural insensitivity and insult.

The topic began trending on Sunday on Chinese microblogging site Weibo after a video singling out for attack the generic visual of an Apple Watch specialist, who appears to be Asian and is sporting a single braid, went viral on video-sharing site Bilibili.

The video incorrectly claimed that Apple assigns customer specialists with pigtails to service the Chinese market.

Some netizens were swift to blame the American tech company for taunting Chinese consumers, as the pigtail, or queue, is a symbol of repression during the Manchu-led Qing imperial rule.

The controversy comes as China is mulling over punishing anyone sporting clothing that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation” – a proposal that attracted immediate criticism for being too vague and potentially giving too much power to rank-and-file law enforcement officers.

But many netizens have also criticised their fellow countrymen for having “too much low self-esteem and being hypersensitive”.

Some spoke up in defence of Apple, pointing out that the same picture of the customer care employee is used in the company’s other country-specific websites and not just China’s.

Others claim the employee in question appears to be Native American and not Chinese.

An editorial in the official China Daily on Monday cautioned against wanton nationalism and reacting to the slightest perceived provocation.

“While the pigtail is anathema for a Han, one should understand that in many cultures it is natural for men to sport plaits, single or plural, on their heads. It is just a style and those sporting it mean no offence to any other culture,” said the editorial.

Well-known commentator Hu Xijin – former editor-in-chief of state news outlet the Global Times – argued that in the current climate of mistrust between the United States and China, Western companies such as Apple “should give enough respect to the Chinese consumers”.

But he also reasoned that while “we should defend our national dignity and resist obvious malicious provocations; on the other hand, we should not indulge our sensitivities”.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

China is a critical market for the American tech multinational, accounting for 20 per cent of its total sales, as well as being its largest manufacturing base.

Apple lost about US$200 billion (S$272.4 billion) in market capitalisation over two days earlier in September on reports that China had banned its government officials from using the iPhone.

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