Chinese Servant Gets 10 Years In Jail For Stealing Overpriced Nokia Vertu Handset

Here’s a sad, and slightly ridiculous, coda to the story of Vertu, Nokia’s wrong turn into making bling-tastic handsets encrusted with diamonds and gold: a servant in China convicted of stealing one from her boss has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined 20,000 yuan (over $3,000).

The story, as published in the English edition of the Chinese People’s Daily Online, notes that Ms Zhang Yun’s defense was that she had not realized the value of the phone when she took it, and did so in the first place because she had not been paid. The incident happened in Henan Province.

“I didn’t know the cell phone was so expensive,” she had told the court, according to the article. “I don’t know anything about the law and I thought the cell phone was only worth one or two thousand yuan to make up for my salary.”

In fact, the phone was a silver edition and was worth 68,000 yuan ($10,000) — an absurd sum of money for a mobile handset anywhere, and even more so in a country with a per capita income of $7,600 (compare that to the U.S. where the per capita GDP is over $47,000).

Crazy prices, in essence, was one of the problems with hallmarks of the whole Vertu project to begin with: Nokia is a business built on massive volumes of handsets, and the move into smaller-scale, higher-margin luxury editions, coupled with concierge services for those who bought them, ran counter to that. It’s just my opinion, but I wonder if Nokia mis-called the whole concept of status in mobile handsets: a top-of-the-line device like an iPhone or the newest Galaxy S III, or even the Lumia 900, is status enough for most people, and if they insist on something shiny, there are replaceable covers for that. Update: Some readers believe that Vertu was actually very successful among its target audience for Vertu. Nokia has never talked about how profitable Vertu was.

So when push came to shove and Nokia began to think of ways it could quickly restructure in the face of growing losses in its main handset business, Vertu was an obvious candidate for the chop. A 90 percent stake in the company is now being sold to private equity firm EQT for around €200 million; Nokia for now is holding on to the remaining 10 percent.

Back in China, a lot of people are up in arms over the severity of the sentence and fine — and they are taking to sites like Sina Weibo to discuss it. It’s hit a nerve perhaps because it plays up on the long-standing, still-central idea of class struggle in the country: “catering to the rich while turning its back on the poor” is a typical comment.

The People’s Daily notes that the court has defended its action, saying that the fine is proportionate to the value of the device. People are now rallying around Ms Zhang to offer free legal support for an appeal.

Ms Zhang said that she had intended to give the phone back to her boss when he had paid up what he owed her. In the meantime she’d buried it in a turnip pit (yes, the silver Vertu went into a turnip pit) and had intended to use it herself — a fact that was discovered on the surveillance cameras that the household had installed on its property (sounds like a great boss, huh?). Ms Zhang had only been working for the household for just over 40 days when this happened back in December 2011.

Update: Another reader in the comments below notes that the sentence has been overturned by the higher court. Here’s a source for that development.