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iPhone 4S China release sparks scuffles and eggings

BEIJING– Question for Siri: What to do when you have egg on your face?

It’s a question Apple officials in China must be asking themselves today after fighting outside a Beijing store forced the company to close its stores nationwide, leaving hordes of outraged Chinese out in the proverbial cold.

Outside one store in Beijing’s Sanlitun entertainment district, Chinese buyers had been lining up outside of Apple stores around China since yesterday in anticipation of the official launch of Apple’s new iPhone 4S. By 1 a.m. Friday, the line had devolved into a thrall of people gathered around the front of the store.

Many of those in line were scalpers intending to resell the phones at inflated prices to impatient consumers.

Between 4 and 5 a.m., scuffles broke out in the line, first between groups of rival scalpers and then later between scalpers and police. Perhaps fearful of a repeat of the violence that occurred at the same Beijing store just eight months prior at the release of the iPad 2, the store remained closed past the pre-announced 7 a.m. time.

Finally an Apple representative with a megaphone came out at 7:15 a.m. and announced the store would not open for iPhone 4S sales without any additional explanation.

The announcement drew immediate boos and chants of “Open the door!” and “Liars!” from the crowd who had been waiting in subzero temperatures throughout the night. At least one customer left and returned with a bag of eggs which were promptly thrown at the glass walls of the Apple store.

David Gray / Reuters

A man yells at a security guard after the guard tried to remove a member of the crowd at the Apple store in the Beijing district of Sanlitun January 13, 2012.

Apple security who attempted to apprehend the egg throwers were instead chased away by throngs of irate customers. Unverified home video of the incident shot and posted on Chinese video sites show some of the security guards being manhandled and beaten by the crowd.

Police later cleared the mob out from the square and a security cordon manned by dozens of uniformed and plain-clothed police was formed around the Apple store. A police officer outside the store told NBC News that iPhone sales in Beijing were being suspended, but believed the Sanlitun store would be open again tomorrow.

Apple later released a statement stating that “to ensure the safety of our customers and employees, iPhone 4S will not be available in our retail stores in Beijing and Shanghai for the time being.”

“Americans do make good products. Much better than ours.”

Meanwhile in Shanghai, lines were more peaceful, but iPhone sales were just as brisk outside the Apple stores as inside.

An NBC news crew outside the Apple store on the popular Nanjing road shopping street found hundreds milling around outside waiting for their chance at an iPhone 4S.

Chu Shanshan, a 25-year-old nurse who jubilantly walked out of the store with phone in hand said she had been waiting since midnight and had finally bought her dream product after 9 hours of waiting.

"Yes it's expensive. I spent a whole month's salary to buy an iPhone 4S. It's just so cool!" she said proudly.

Suddenly chaos broke out around the entrance of the Apple store. Two policemen, obviously well-prepared, could be seen yanking a man – possibly a scalper – away and disappearing into a nearby alleyway.

"Where are you from?" asked a middle-aged woman from the edge of the crowd.

"Ha! Americans must feel great to see Chinese people fighting to buy their products, right?" crowed the woman before adding, “Well I can't blame them. Americans do make good products. Much better than ours."

Big business for scalpers

For the scalpers who lined up outside of Apple stores today in Beijing and Shanghai, the iPhone’s highly anticipated release is potentially huge business. Apple restricts buyers to two phones each, so to get around those rules, scalpers hire people – often migrant workers looking to make a little extra money – to wait in line with them to purchase more phones.

Some scalpers hired scores of people to line up with them, easily identifiable by the matching ribbons they wore around their arms. They were preceded by the scalpers themselves, who wore identifiers like a balloon to help his or her buyers keep track of their whereabouts.

On Sina Weibo, China’s twitter-like service, a user representing one of the ubiquitous Apple fan clubs talked to one group of 42 buyers who had been hired by a scalper for $27 each to wait in line to purchase iPhones.

For those buyers, it’s extra money to sock away in an increasing inflated economy, but for the scalpers themselves, it’s a small price to pay for the potentially huge profits they can make selling the new phones at exorbitantly marked up prices.

Just 100 yards away from the Apple store in Shanghai, two men in worn, silvery suits held a sign over their head offering the new iPhone 4S 16gb for $918, a significant markup from the $790 listed price on Apple’s China website.

When asked why people would buy from them when they can walk half a block down and purchase the exact same phone for $128 less, one of them said, “Well first of all they don't have to line up and wait if they buy from us."

"And they can only buy a phone at the Apple store,” chimed in the other scalper, “with us we can install a lot of Apps for them."

 NBC News researcher Ting Zhao contributed to this report