As the large-scale anti-government protests in Hong Kong continues, the fight between China nationalists and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters have moved to an unlikely battlefield — the online retail giant Amazon (AMZN).
Chinese people are enraged that Amazon is selling pro-Hong Kong protest T-shirts on its U.S. and UK websites. As the hashtag #AmazonTshirt generated heated discussions on China’s microblog Weibo, angry people took some action: They reported the listings to Amazon’s customer services and even figured out a way to hijack the product images by changing them into Chinese flags.
The affected listings are plain T-shirts and pop sockets printed with slogans that are common in the protests, including “Free Hong Kong, Democracy now” “Hong Kong independence”, and “Retake Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”. Even though the products aren’t directly sold to Chinese customers, some Chinese people said online that they have “hurt feelings” and the listing “ignored Chinese rules.”
Early Wednesday, customers who searched for “free Hong Kong T-shirt” on Amazon saw a full page of Chinese flags with provocative messages in Chinese. The messages read, "Anyone who dares to offend China will be eventually punished, no matter how far they are.” It also urged Amazon to apologize to Chinese people, otherwise “our hi-tech will take Amazon’s whole site down.”
The attack on listings spread to Amazon’s sites worldwide, like UK and Germany. On the German site, the image of a “pro-democracy Hong Kong T-shirt” listing had been changed to a Chinese flag and displayed messages from a company called Yuze Technology, a China-based consulting firm for Amazon sellers. “Wish China to prosper” and “Hong Kong is part of China” were in the messages.
By Wednesday evening, most of the listings that had been attacked on the U.S. site were back to normal. Some links to listings were unavailable and simply didn’t work.
Amazon declined to comment.
Hard to be ‘a politics-free platform’
The act of altering listing information is not unprecedented on the Amazon marketplace, according to Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of Marketplace Pulse. But it's very rare for people to attack listings for purely political reasons as in this case. Only Amazon and sellers have the authorization to change product information. So, it’s unclear how people find loopholes to manipulate the listings. Many of the attacked listings were from Merch by Amazon, a program that enables individual creators to design T-shirts and pop sockets. Under Merch by Amazon, Amazon takes over the manufacturing and fulfillment work and designers earn commissions from each sale.
On Weibo, there are over 320,000 posts with the hashtag “Amazon T-shirt”, mostly condemning Amazon for selling pro-Hong Kong independence T-shirts. The Seattle-based giant quit the Chinese e-commerce market earlier this year, but it still has a booming cloud business in China. Chinese sellers also play a vital role in its global marketplace. Among the top 10,000 sellers in the U.S. who sell at least $1 million or more, at least 40% of them are based in China, according to Marketplace Pulse data.
“It’s fascinating to see a foreign country’s battle played out on Amazon's marketplace,” said Kaziukenas. “Ideally, Amazon wants to be a politics-free platform, and they just sell products. And in this case, the original merchants support one political ideology, which upset a different part of a group of people who decided to act on it and fight it. It’s not something Amazon wants to deal with.”
Krystal Hu covers technology and China for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.