A coordinated effort from Chinese state media to knock Apple down a notch or two on “World Consumer Rights Day” has gone awry after celebrities were caught posting what appear to be staged complaints about the company, Offbeat China reports.

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) has a tradition of marking March 15th by publishing a series of exposés on companies. This year it went after Apple, but viewers are now calling foul after noticing something off about a suspiciously-timed wave of celebrity complaints about Apple published to the Sina Weibo microblogging service.

Pop star Peter Ho reportedly posted a complaint to Weibo on Friday evening accusing Apple of bullying consumers because it is a famous brand. However, he forgot to remove the “Send at 8:20pm” instructions from his handlers from the end of his message. The post was then deleted and re-sent without the gaffe. As of Saturday morning local time, Ho’s account displays a message saying that his account was hacked and he has regained control.

Eagle-eyed Weibo users put two and two together after noticing that numerous other Chinese celebrities also posted similar complaints about Apple at 8:20 PM. While we can’t be sure who was coordinating the celebrity posts, things certainly look bad for the broadcaster, which already has thin credibility because of its close ties to the establishment.

Former Google China chief Kai-fu Lee, known for being outspoken on Weibo, explained that he had been invited by Sina to speak out, but he declined the offer.

All of this is not helped by the fact that Weibo data shows that many of the stars were sending their complaints from Apple devices.

Netizen responses to the incident have been varied. Some even suspect rival Samsung of coordinating the smear campaign. Offbeat China notes that many have accused Sina and CCTV of conspiring against Apple.

CCTV’s report about Apple had originally centered around claims that Apple’s customer service in China reuses the back cover of faulty iPhones when replacing them. The company has faced lawsuits in the country from a consumer watchdog that alleges it has passed off refurbished iPhones as new ones.

In the past few years, China has risen to become a crucial market for Apple. It is the company’s second-largest source of revenue, behind only the US, and CEO Tim Cook believes it will eventually become its largest.

Apple began breaking out sales for Greater China in the December 2012 quarter. It brought in $6.83 billion in revenue from the region during the period, roughly 12.5% of overall revenue.

While Apple has seen impressive success in China where others, such as Google, have failed, it sits in a delicate position as a notable foreign enterprise in the country. Government policy and/or public opinion could quickly change Apple’s fate there. It looks safe for now, but the company had best keep a careful watch.

(hat tip Bill Bishop)

Image Credit: Laurent Fievet/Getty