Samsung appears to be having a hard time winning back Chinese consumers that lost faith in it after the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco.
The South Korean company issued a belated recall of the Galaxy Note 7 in China, weeks after it ceased sales in the US, that prompted allegations of anti-China prejudice. Then on Oct. 29, Samsung held an event in Shijiazhuang, Hebei for local distributors. In order to thank retail partners for continuing to support the brand, about 20 Korean and Chinese Samsung leaders took the stage at the event, and then kneeled to show their gratitude.
The gesture was not well-received in China.
When a Sina Weibo user (who claims to have purchased a faulty Galaxy Note 7 that exploded) tweeted out an image of the executives on their knees, thousands of Chinese internet users reacted angrily. By kneeling, Samsung showed disrespect for Chinese culture, they said.
“Now we can say goodbye to Samsung,” wrote one on Weibo (link in Chinese, registration required). “We bow for our parents, teachers, heroes, martyrs, our virtuous ancestors, what’s the purpose of this sort of bowing? I can’t accept this in my heart,” another wrote.
Kneeling in China is considered an antiquated practice, associated with feudal society (although it has also been used by Chinese companies in the recent past to shame employees). A lengthy 2014 piece from English-language state media outlet China Daily describes kneeling as something reserved only for one’s family, a “god”, or in acts of extreme desperation.
A Chinese will kneel down before a god to beg for a blessing or express his or her gratitude to the god for a wish that has been fulfilled. They may kneel before their parents on special occasions such as their parents’ birthday or Spring Festival to show their gratitude for their efforts to bring them up.
They will also go on their knees when they are desperate, if someone is pointing a gun at them, for example, and they are begging for mercy for their loved ones, or a person might kneel and beg for a bowl of rice if they are starving.
Koreans were responsible for the Galaxy Note 7 debacle, not Chinese executives, critics of the practice said. “They claim to be a global company, but the management doesn’t know about the importance cultural differences?” another wrote on Weibo (link in Chinese, registration required).
Others were harsher, using a derogatory term for Koreans, “bangzi,” to refer to Samsung. The term literally means “stick” but refers to Korea’s involvement in the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. One even made light of the ongoing scandal plaguing South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
“South Korea is a country whose president is controlled by a cult and “eight fairies.” If the culture and mindset of its largest biggest economic pillar aren’t normal, do you think this country can continue on this course?” the commenter wrote on Zhihu (link in Chinese), China’s answer to Quora.
Samsung’s statement to Chinese media outlet the Paper (link in Chinese) implied that Chinese executives kneeled without being told to by management:
This was regional stock ordering event for distributors, PR had no knowledge of it beforehand. As we understand it, despite the influence of the Galaxy Note 7 explosions, distributors continued to support Samsung, and booked many orders at the event. This was extremely touching for Samsung’s top executives, and in accordance their customs they kneeled to express gratitude towards these distributors. Samsung’s China executives were also moved, and they kneeled too.
The Galaxy Note 7 fiasco cost Samsung Electronic $2.3 billion in profit in Q3 2016. The company isn’t entirely dependent on smartphone sales, but if it hopes to revive its device division, China will be crucial. Its status as the country’s market leader eroded in recent quarters, and local players like Oppo, Vivo, and Huawei are leading instead.
Kneeling might not be tactful, but it’s appropriately desperate.
Update: This piece’s headline originally stated that Chinese consumers kneeled out of apology. It has been corrected to reflect that the kneeled out of gratitude, as stated in the piece.