The world’s biggest annual online shopping spree is happening on November 11 – Singles’ Day – but some young Hongkongers are threatening to boycott the massive discounts on the Taobao platform.
The annual 11.11 Global Shopping Festival on the Alibaba Group’s popular marketplace has been targeted by the city’s anti-government protesters, who have used online forum LIHKG to call for a boycott of mainland Chinese businesses and Made-in-China products.
But economists point out that Hong Kong shoppers make up only a tiny share of 11.11 shoppers and any boycott would have a minimal impact. Yet protest supporters say they want to register their objections to mainland-related businesses.
“It’s a way of showing our stance,” said production assistant Yami Leung Ching-yan, 26, insisting that businesses would know if Hongkongers stayed away.
The annual 24-hour sale has become an international phenomenon involving other companies and shopping sites, but Taobao has a leading role in wooing shoppers with steep discounts for a wide range of products.
Alibaba, which also owns the South China Morning Post, expects to attract more than 500 million shoppers to this year’s Singles’ Day. As of June, it had about 860 million annual active consumers globally.
Last year, US$30 billion worth of goods were transacted on November 11, a record since the event started in 2009.
Taobao gained popularity in Hong Kong as early as 2012. That year, it had 1.2 million registered users in the city, which has a population of 7.15 million.
Calls to boycott the 11.11 sales follow protesters’ moves to support only businesses that back their efforts, and shun those whose owners speak up against the protests or appear to be pro-Beijing or pro-government.
The increasingly violent unrest, now in its sixth month, has involved protesters vandalising businesses regarded as being linked to the mainland as well as branches of Chinese banks.
Leung said she stopped shopping on Taobao from about July, as anti-government protests gained traction.
“If we want to cause collateral damage and business losses, Taobao is a channel for us to clearly express our demands,” Leung said.
The protesters succeeded in getting the government to withdraw the extradition bill which triggered the unrest, over fears that fugitives might be sent to mainland China, among other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no exchange arrangement.
Hong Kong accounts for only a very small part of the mainland’s e-commerce market and can be ignored
Mei Xinyu, mainland-based economist
The protesters have four other demands: for an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality; an end to referring to the protests as riots; amnesty for all those arrested during the protests; and universal suffrage.
Leung said she had bought clothes and accessories on Taobao every month or two since 2012, spending HK$100 to HK$1,000 each time. In last year’s 11.11 sale, she scored a bedside cabinet which originally cost more than HK$1,000 at half-price.
She now shops elsewhere, even if it costs more.
Like Leung, Sonia Lam Jing-hin, 27, who works in public relations, said abandoning Taobao made little difference to her life as there were many alternative shopping platforms for clothes and shoes.
“What I buy are not daily goods, so the impact to me is minimal,” she said.
Hong Kong shoppers may find it hard to stay away from some of the big 11.11 discounts being offered by mainland retailers.
Tech giant Xiaomi, for example, has slashed prices for televisions and air conditioners by more than 40 per cent, with free delivery.
But Jack Tsang, 32, a Hongkonger and an executive on product accreditation, said he would hunt for bargains on Singles’ Day, just as he had for the past five years.
“There is no way to boycott Taobao or to be as extreme as boycotting Made-in-China products,” he said, describing himself as a peaceful and rational protester.
“Isn’t everything made there? Even many things listed on Amazon and Best Buy are made in China.”
He planned to spend about HK$10,000 this year – HK$4,000 to HK$5,000 on a Lenovo laptop, around HK$2,000 on household goods and another HK$2,000 on anything he came across on the day. His budget was much higher than the HK$1,000 he spent last year as he found many products were cheaper, he said.
“The Lenovo laptop is 30 to 40 per cent off,” he said. “Even if I change my mind after buying it, I can always resell it.”
Nick Tsang, 25, who works in the environmental industry, was also reluctant to shun Taobao. But he said he would not shop on November 11 because he noted the actual prices of the goods with special discounts were similar to what he saw during the rest of the year.
Even though he supported the protests, he still shopped on the platform for clothes and electrical accessories such as USB cables.
“I feel guilty about this. I will buy less in the future and maybe switch to Amazon for electrical products,” he said.
Mainland-based economist Mei Xinyu said any boycott by Hongkongers was likely to have little impact on the mainland’s online retail industry.
“Hong Kong accounts for only a very small part of the mainland’s e-commerce market and can be ignored,” he said.
Agreeing, Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, director of ACE Centre for Business and Economic Research, pointed out that Hong Kong had a population of only 7.5 million.
He noted that the protesters’ boycott of businesses deemed pro-Beijing or pro-government was only a small factor in the sharp fall in Hong Kong’s retail sales in recent months.
The major cause of the retail slump, he said, was the big decline in mainland Chinese visitors since the protests began.
In September, the city’s retail sales tumbled 18.3 per cent to HK$29.9 billion from the same month last year, after a record 22.9 per cent year-on-year fall in the previous month.
Additional reporting by Fiona Sun and Denise Tsang
This article Some Hong Kong protesters plan to give Taobao’s Singles’ Day a miss first appeared on South China Morning Post