CEOspotting: Apple’s Tim Cook Seen in China, but Why?

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STwing / Sina Weibo

Let’s play a game! It’s called “spot the CEO traveling abroad, then speculate about what it means.” In this instance, we’re talking Apple CEO Tim Cook, reportedly spied by a blogger who snapped a casual picture of Cook as he strolled through an Apple Store in Xidan, Beijing last Friday. Or maybe it was this morning, if you’re noting the timeframe as you backtrack through the echo chamber.

Reports conflict about when the photo above was ultimately taken by a blogger on the Twitter-like Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo (it was uploaded Monday morning) so we’ll guesstimate it was sometime between last Friday and this morning, Beijing time. In fact we can’t absolutely confirm that’s actually Tim Cook and not a lookalike (China Daily reached out to the Apple Store, located in a mall whose name translates as “Joy City,” and couldn’t get confirmation Cook had visited), and Apple hasn’t (yet) responded to our informational request.

(MORE: Apple Cancels Beijing iPhone 4S Sales, Gets Egg on Store and Face)

But the bigger question, assuming that really is Tim Cook, is what he’s doing there. His predecessor Steve Jobs never visited China. Not that there weren’t plenty of reasons to. China’s one of Apple’s most important markets — China Daily reports the Joy City store is the largest Apple Store in the world by sales volume according to a report by Chinese Internet company NetEase. You remember the craziness that ensued when Apple launched the iPhone 4S in January, right? Then there’s Proview, the monitor-manufacturer with Apple in its crosshairs over Cupertino’s alleged infringement of the trademark “IPAD,” which Proview claims it owns. And don’t forget Foxconn, the Apple supplier accused of harsh labor practices culminating in several worker suicides over the past few years.

Cook may also be visiting to chat further with cellular titan China Mobile, China’s largest wireless operator. A slightly blurred camera snap (also via Sina Weibo) put Cook in the lobby of China Mobile’s Beijing HQ last year, while he was still Apple’s chief operating officer. At the time, Cook was said to be working with China Mobile to negotiate the carrier’s support for the iPhone.

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