Reports early Monday from China suggest that a mass disturbance or riots may have broken out at a Foxconn factory in the Chinese city of Taiyuan.
It is still unclear what exactly happened, but posts on China’s popular twitter-like service, Weibo, from users in the area show photographs and video of large numbers of police in and around the factory – many in riot gear – blocking off throngs of people.
Other photos show debris strewn around the Foxconn compound and in one case, an overturned guard tower.
Censors in China have reportedly already started deleting pictures from the scene.
This is not the first time that Foxconn has had problems with its Taiyuan facility, which is reportedly responsible for the fabrication of the back plate of the immensely popular new iPhone 5. In March, strikes broke out there after workers did not receive a pay raise they had reportedly been promised.
Meanwhile, Foxconn’s Chengdu plant in Sichuan province also has dealt with riots. In June, scores of Foxconn workers there got into a fight with a local restaurant owner that had to be broken up by police.
Foxconn is the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer responsible for much of the current production and assembly of Apple’s popular line of products as well as a wide variety of popular tech toys ranging from laptops to gaming consoles.
But Foxconn has been under fire for years for its tough working conditions, including long hours, low wages and strict rules on representation. The company has also dealt with a string of suicides at its plants across China, which led to the company in 2010 installing anti-jump nets to prevent more suicide attempts.
The company has taken steps to improve working conditions in its factories by reducing work hours and raising wages for its front-line workers.
Still, perhaps wary of the continued negative publicity that has plagued one of its primary manufacturers over the years, Apple recently took steps to diversify its portfolio of producers, recently awarding much of the manufacturing of its new iteration of the iPad to another Taiwanese company, Pegatron.
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
BEIJING — Walk by the Apple shop in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood any day and you begin to have an inkling of how popular this brand has become in China in just a couple of years.
Roughly 40,000 visitors a day enter Apple’s shops in Beijing and Shanghai — four times as many as in any of the Apple shops in the United States.
But such popularity can attract imitation that Apple might not view as the sincerest form of flattery.
An American living in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in China’s remote southwest corner, came across a fake Apple shop.
An entire fake Apple shop.
“They looked like Apple products. It looked like an Apple store. It had the classic Apple store winding staircase and weird upstairs sitting area. The employees were even wearing those blue t-shirts with the chunky Apple name tags around their necks,” writes the blogger.
But upon closer inspection, our intrepid fellow American realized, “A beautiful ripoff — a brilliant one — the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day). But some things were just not right: the stairs were poorly made. The walls hadn’t been painted properly. Apple never writes “Apple Store” on its signs — it just puts up the glowing, iconic fruit.”
Now it wasn’t clear to the blogger whether the products were fake, too, but they looked real enough.
But here’s the real kicker: Some of the staff appeared to believe they were really working for Apple.
We checked with Apple, which confirmed it does not have a self-standing retail outlet in Kunming, but it does have a reseller. However, that reseller is nowhere near the "fake" shop mentioned in the blog.
Huge fan base
As with many American companies, China is a highly lucrative market for Apple. The company’s chief financial officer was quoted earlier this year as saying, of all the Apple outlets in the world, the China stores clocks on average the highest traffic and highest revenue.
On Tuesday, the Cupertino-based company posted record quarterly earnings, with China sales leaping a record 250 percent since last year and comprising a third of all Apple sales.
While Macs are popular with the trendy and design-oriented set in Beijing and Shanghai, the iPhone and iPad have become ubiquitous among well-heeled youth and business types in all major Chinese cities.
The sleek, stylish products have garnered such a huge fan base in China that quirky testimonies to its popularity are legion:
The release of the white iPhone earlier this year set off a violent frenzy in the Beijing store. That same outlet is also where customers are routinely approached on the premises by resellers or scalpers trying to hawk iPads and iPhones acquired elsewhere or, more commonly, overseas (where the products cost much less than they do in China).
In fact, the practice of buying iPads and iPhones outside China to bring back into the mainland — for resale or for personal use — is so widespread that Chinese customs agents began imposing a 20 percent import tax on any travelers found with such items in their possession.
During Apple’s earnings call on Tuesday, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook said China was “very key” to the company's results. He was also quoted as saying Apple hadn’t “learned to play perfectly” in the China market.
But it would seem that some enterprising Chinese know very well how to play in the Apple market.
Get an intimate look at life at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn is famously the manufacturer that produces iPhones — and a lot of other best-selling electronic gear. But infamously, it's where workers have been known to commit suicide, possibly from job-induced stress