Alibaba Faces Growing Pressure Over Counterfeit Goods
Alibaba has a fakes problem.
On Wednesday, American trade officials said that they had added Taobao, the Alibaba Group’s sprawling online shopping bazaar in China, to their list of the world’s most notorious markets for counterfeit goods. The addition — an embarrassing setback four years after Alibaba successfully lobbied American officials to drop the platform from the list — comes as the owners of brands increasingly complain about the proliferation of fakes on the company’s sales platforms.
It also comes as Alibaba moves to satisfy increasingly sophisticated Chinese consumers who want higher quality goods — a shift that has also drawn intensifying competition from Alibaba’s rivals.
Alibaba says it has increased efforts to find and eliminate counterfeit goods. In its report on Wednesday, the Office of the United States Trade Representative acknowledged those efforts — but said they were not enough.
阿里巴巴表示，它已经做出了更大的努力来寻找和清除假货。美国贸易代表办公室(Office of the United States Trade Representative)在周三的报告中承认了这种努力——但表示这还不够。
Taobao “is an important concern due to the large volume of allegedly counterfeit and pirated goods available and the challenges right holders experience in removing and preventing illicit sales and offers of such goods,” said the agency, citing complaints from brand owners about the proliferation of fakes on Taobao.
“While recent steps set positive expectations for the future,” it added, “current levels of reported counterfeiting and piracy are unacceptably high.”
Alibaba, which maintains that counterfeit goods are an industrywide problem, called the move “counterproductive” and questioned the motives behind the agency’s decision. In a statement from Michael Evans, the president of Alibaba, the company said the decision “leads us to question whether the U.S.T.R. acted based on the actual facts or was influenced by the current political climate” — an apparent reference to the negative language about China that Donald J. Trump espoused during the campaign and as president-elect.
阿里巴巴坚称假货是一个行业性的问题，他们说此举将“适得其反”，并质疑该机构做出这个决定背后的动机。阿里巴巴总裁迈克尔·埃文斯(Michael Evans)在一份声明中说，该公司认为这个决定“令我们质疑美国贸易代表是在根据实际情况行事，还是受到了当前政治气候的影响”——显然指的是唐纳德·J·特朗普(Donald J. Trump)在竞选期间和胜选之后提到中国时使用了消极措辞。
In an email to the group that oversees how Alibaba’s platforms are governed, Daniel Zhang, the company’s chief executive, pushed the group to continue fighting counterfeiters, whom he described as being “like bacteria in the air that we breathe.” But he also compared the American move to trade protectionism and said Alibaba would face similar efforts elsewhere as it expanded abroad.
“It wouldn’t come as a surprise if we encounter other situations similar to that of ‘Notorious Markets’ in the future, where protectionism leads to malicious acts to players in the market,” he wrote in the email, which the company shared publicly.
The decision by the agency, which does not come with any official punishments, will have little practical impact on Alibaba’s main China operations. The company is enjoying rising sales as Chinese consumers shrug off the country’s slowing economic growth and continue their online buying spree. In after-hours trading on Wednesday after the announcement, its shares fell less than 1 percent.
But the listing could complicate the Chinese company’s ambitions to move into other markets. Alibaba has made forays into the United States, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and it is moving into industries like entertainment that could take it further abroad. The listing is also a blemish for a company that symbolized China’s rising sophistication when it held a landmark initial public offering of stock two years ago in the United States.
The listing represents a stumble in Alibaba’s lobbying efforts in the United States. Four years ago, American officials removed Taobao from the list, citing its efforts to fight fakes. The move came after Alibaba tapped a former official from the trade representative’s office, James Mendenhall, to work on its behalf.
In recent years Alibaba has de-emphasized Taobao, a vast platform where sellers big and small can set up online stores, resembling eBay. Analysts say its growth prospects are limited, and a growing number of Chinese consumers say they want to buy from sources they can better trust.
“The problem is that anybody can open a Taobao shop and sell anything,” said Shaun Rein, founder and managing director of China Market Research Group.
“问题在于任何人都可以开淘宝店，卖任何东西，”中国市场研究(China Market Research Group)的创始人兼董事总经理雷小山(Shaun Rein)说。
Yu Yang, a 36-year-old information technology engineer in Beijing, said he started using Taobao more than a decade ago. “But I almost stopped completely about three or four years ago,” he said, adding that it had become difficult to tell fake from real basketball sneakers, which he collects.
“Fakes are getting more and more real,” said Mr. Yu, who said he had switched to shopping on JD.com and also buys more when he travels to South Korea or Japan. “Unless you compare a fake with an authentic, it would be almost impossible to tell.”
Alibaba said its core Chinese retail business had 439 million annual active users during the year that ended in September, though it does not break out how many of them are Taobao users. That business makes its money by charging fees to, and providing advertising for, vendors.
Alibaba has tried to steer business to its Tmall platform, which is geared toward larger sellers of higher-end name brands like Nike and Estée Lauder. But that business faces intense competition from JD.com and others that manage their own inventory and act more as curators for finicky customers.
Tmall is the dominant player in the business to consumer segment, as Tmall and its rivals are called, with a little more than half of the market, according to figures from the data firm iResearch. But the data also shows that it has slowly lost market share to others.
Last year, in a warning to Alibaba, the United States Trade Representative also mentioned Tmall as a source of complaints about fakes, though the platform was not mentioned in this year’s list. Alibaba has also defended Tmall’s efforts to fight fakes.
The American government’s move adds to mounting pressure on Alibaba to do something about fakes. Last year, the owner of the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent brands sued Alibaba in New York federal court, claiming that the company encouraged sales of fakes on its online platforms. In October an industry group, the American Apparel and Footwear Association and others openly called for Alibaba to be added to the government’s notorious markets list, saying its members saw little change despite the company’s efforts to fight fakes.
美国政府的举动增加了阿里巴巴应对假货的压力。去年，古驰(Gucci)和圣罗兰(Yves Saint Laurent)品牌的拥有者将阿里巴巴告上了纽约联邦法院，声称该公司鼓励在其在线平台上售假。10月，行业机构美国服装与鞋业协会(American Apparel and Footwear Association)和其他一些团体公开要求将阿里巴巴加入政府的恶名市场名单，称尽管该公司采取了多项打假行动，但该协会的成员几乎没有看到变化。
In May, the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition backed away from a plan to give Alibaba membership in its ranks as part of a united effort to fight fakes, after other members objected and raised questions about financial ties between Alibaba and the group’s leadership. The group defended its leadership but said it had hired an outside firm to review its internal controls.
5月，国际反假联盟(International Anticounterfeiting Coalition)在其他成员反对并对阿里巴巴和该组织的领导层之间的经济往来提出质疑后，放弃了让阿里巴巴加入联盟，这本来是一项联合打假行动的一部分。国际反假联盟为自己的领导层进行了辩护，但表示已聘请一家外部公司对其内部管控措施进行审查。