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China’s homegrown smartphones are finally chic enough for its first lady

AP Photo/dpa, Soeren Stache
A fashion accessory for the smartphone set.
ChinaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A year ago China’s first lady Peng Liyuan was on a state visit to Russia, where she was snapped carrying a rather fashionable handbag off the plane. Some speculated the bag was by luxury brand Tod’s, but it was eventually confirmed that it was instead by Exception de Mixmind—a company based in Guangzhou. The internet went bonkers.

Last week, Peng did it again, but it was her smartphone that caught all the attention. The wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who had previously been seen with an iPhone 5, snapped a quick camera-phone shot at a friendly youth football match in Germany. Chinese internet users once again went to work. Despite Peng’s phone not having any visible logo, online detectives quickly worked out she was using a sleek Nubia Z5 mini, made by ZTE.

Of course this is great news for ZTE, which rushed to capitalize on the PR victory, but the company’s position as preferred handset-provider to the first lady is far from guaranteed, as there is tight competition among Chinese companies selling huge numbers of smartphones that are not only cheap but high quality and—whisper it—even fairly stylish:

  • ZTE, which makes Peng’s phone, has been struggling to gain attention in a crowded marketplace. While the Nubia handset is cooler than anything made by Huawei or Lenovo, it costs significantly more, at around $300, and that can’t compete with…
  • Xiaomi is the slickly marketed upstart in the Chinese smartphone market. Although its overall marketshare is relatively low, its feature-packed phones often undercut competitors by virtue of its direct-sales model—and new models often sell out within seconds.
  • Smartphone maker OnePlus, which only launched in December, announced that it will launch its first smartphone on April 23. OnePlus claims its first handset will be second only to the iPhone in terms of appearance and, like Xiaomi, will run on a modified version of Android to effectively provide a proprietary OS—all for a promised sticker price of under $400.

Whether Peng Liyuan switches handsets again by summer or not, if she does there are fewer and fewer reasons for her next phone to be an iPhone.

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