BEIJING -- The store clerk polished the iPhone 4 as though it were a diamond. Then he reverentially handed it to Liu Jia.
"You have to have it. It's like religion," said Liu, a 29-year-old public relations manager. "I don't think a lot of people understand the essence of the iPhone, but it looks cool and it makes you a star in front of your friends."
Apple infatuation has officially arrived in the land of 800 million-plus mobile phone users.
The recent launch of the iPhone 4 on mainland China created a frenzy, with fighting breaking out among shoppers at Apple's flagship store, located in a high-end shopping and bar area of Beijing called Sanlitun. The store had to be closed to restore order. Shortly after the latest version of the iPhone officially went on sale Sept. 25, Apple's carrier partner, China Unicom, announced it had received 200,000 pre-orders, even though the country is already swamped with "gray market" iPhone 4s brought in from Hong Kong and the United States.
Compared with Americans and consumers in other developing countries, relatively few Chinese lined up for Apple products. But the intensity of those that do underscores the importance high-end products have for newly wealthy Chinese, many of whom are willing to pay above suggested retail prices to get their hands on devices like the iPhone 4 before others do.
Cupertino-based Apple, after years of effectively ignoring the country with the world's largest
number of mobile phone and Internet users, is now aggressively courting Chinese consumers. Products such as the iPhone and iPad are hitting the Chinese market faster than ever before -- the iPhone 4 went on sale just about three months after its U.S. release, while it took more than two years between the debut of the first version of the iPhone and its rollout in China.
And the recent opening of the first Apple Shanghai store, featuring a stunning 40-foot-high glass cylinder, is part of a new retail strategy to open 25 stores in China by the end of next year, a dramatic increase from the four that now exist -- two in Beijing and two in Shanghai.
During the company's second-quarter conference call with analysts, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook said revenue for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan was nearly $1.3 billion -- a more than 200 percent jump from the same period a year ago. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimates China represents about 5 percent of the company's sales and expects that to double some time from 2015 to 2020. And Apple's shares topped $300 Wednesday, in part on investor excitement over its growth here.
Apple would not comment on its China strategy.
"It's critical that Apple is in China," Needham & Co. analyst Charles Wolf said. "There is a strong move toward conspicuous consumption and that means there is a strong move to buy Apple products."
The iPhone conveys status in a status-conscious culture.
"It's pretty," said Zhang Ya Nan, a college sophomore who visited an Apple reseller just to touch an iPhone, which she planned to buy with help from her mother. "I don't want to wait too long."
It's not uncommon for Chinese to spend two months' salary -- or more -- on an iPhone, which costs about $750 for a 16 gigabyte model without a China Unicom contract, though the relative scarcity of the devices has driven the price up among scalpers and resellers. Consumers can also get a 16GB iPhone 4 with a two-year contract that costs about $880. Some Chinese don't even use the device as a phone because it's too expensive for them to make calls; instead, it's used to send text messages, said Shaun Rein, managing director of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group.
"They use the iPhone as a status symbol to show their sophistication in the world, even though they can't afford it," he said.
Apple's lure goes beyond the iPhone. Wen Diren, along with his wife, Shi Guoling, visited the Sanlitun Apple store last week to check out the iPad. "I just came to try it out and I fell in love with it," he said, cradling the new 16GB iPad he bought for a little less than $600, about $100 more than what the device sells for in the United States.
Like all infatuations, though, there is a risk the attraction is temporary -- or that obstacles could impede a long-term relationship.
"Apple hasn't learned how to tackle markets that have very different characteristics from the United States," Shanghai-based Gartner analyst Sandy Shen said.
Among the difficulties Apple faces in China, for example, are competing with easily made iPad and iPhone knockoffs and marketing its high-priced products to a population that has a much lower income than consumers in more developed countries like the United States.
"There are a lot of shanzhai," or fake mobile phones, said Jixin Huang, investment manager with expertise in China's mobile market at Innovation Works, an early-stage startup venture fund. "They are everywhere."
Apple also will face strong competition from phones running on Google's Android mobile operating system, whose aggregate market share is already higher than that of the iPhone in China, Shen said.
Apple is used to having its way in every market it enters, but in China the company must contend with a government that does not hesitate to dictate its wishes to foreign companies, Piper Jaffray's Munster said. When the iPhone first came to China, for instance, government officials mandated that the device could not be equipped with Wi-Fi. That rule has now changed.
"Apple has great products the whole world wants," said Rein, of China Market Research. "But Steve Jobs looks at America too much. The company is too Ameri-centric. This is a complaint you hear throughout the world."
For now, though, Chinese consumers are riveted with Apple's splashy presence in Beijing and Shanghai.
Every day, Apple's split-level, glass-walled Sanlitun store is packed with jostling shoppers. Young Chinese, like fixated gamblers, press around tables filled with iPhones, iPads and MacBooks.
Most visitors to the boxlike store, though, seem content to just gaze at the gadgets.
New iPad owner Wen believes Apple's sleek design has a good chance of winning over the masses. But, he added, "We still have to wait and see."
Mercury News staff writer Troy Wolverton contributed to this report. Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496.