Earlier this month Beijing released a discussion draft of its Ecommerce Law that has sent China watchers and businesses searching earnestly for some clarity. It promises to dramatically tighten up the cross border commerce opportunities that make up one of the most important and fastest growing channels for foreign brands exploring the China market. Like many government mandates, it strikes a confusing contradiction; adhering to the trend of increased control over China’s online consumer space in the face of all the talk of China opening up to the world from its helmsman.
Whilst some details of the discussion draft are uncertain, it will send shudders to some imported brands selling in China. Foreign retailers will be unable to sell online in China without going through a platform controlled by a Chinese-owned entity with the relevant licenses. Whereas the vast majority of online sales currently go through these channels anyway – Taobao, Tmall, JD, etc – it doesn’t look positive for Amazon’s ecommerce business in China, who this month sold their China-based cloud computing hardware due to the new cyber security laws. It also provides little hope for foreign brand.com stores.
The draft also seeks to shut down online sales as a way to import illegal products into China. If ‘illegal’ includes products currently not allowed to be sold in Mainland China, it will dramatically impact the most popular cross border category: cosmetics and skincare, where foreign products can’t be sold in China if they aren’t tested on animals. Only approved products will make it through the gate so it is likely to affect many categories.
As the China Law Blog eloquently put it, “the plan is to funnel all cross-border e-commerce through a limited number of processing centers, all of which are controlled by the national government”. Daigou traders are unlikely to be tickled pink by the rules.
The unfortunate reality of the draft regulations is that they will make the already dominant platforms such as Alibaba and JD even stronger. As their listing and support fees can be a prohibitive expense for smaller brands and the platforms are getting more crowded by the day, it is becoming increasingly harder to even get a listing on the platforms, let alone be noticed.
The wonderful thing about China’s current cross border commerce environment is how sales are spread across many more channels – Alibaba’s platforms account for just a third of sales, versus three quarters of China’s ecommerce overall. Although most of the other cross border platforms are Chinese entities and won’t be negatively affected by the new rules, those foreign-based sites may not fare so well – a real shame given many successful foreign brands now in China first sold into the market from their own foreign-based sites.