There's no such thing as bad publicity.
Chinese e-commerce companies were put through the wringer last night when the state broadcaster CCTV aired its annual consumer affairs gala. Ele.me, a food-delivery site, works with unhygienic restaurants, while retailers such as Taobao are dotted with fake reviews, the program said.
The nation's e-commerce industry should write a collective check to CCTV, such is the value of the free publicity. Being named and shamed by the consumer advocate to an audience of hundreds of millions sounds bad, especially when it concerns areas as emotive as health and hygiene.
In reality, even a shellacking by the so-called 315 Gala could do little to dent the online commerce market, which last year grew 32 percent. Instead, what CCTV has done as a government proxy is to legitimize e-commerce as an irreversible part of China's move toward building an economy fueled by domestic consumption.
Until just a few years ago, online shopping was the domain of comparatively well-off people looking for comparatively cheap goods. Now, online shopping involves almost one-third of the nation's population.
With that growth, and because the line between cheap and fake often was blurred, many came to the conclusion that e-commerce shops were virtual warehouses for brand ripoffs, as well as mundane items like TVs and toothpaste.
Now, according to CCTV, we find that the ills of the industry run deeper, as some food delivery companies work with unlicensed vendors to offer questionable products. With online food being relatively new, and among the fastest-growing areas, it's not surprising that it received special attention.
Some context is needed. Fraud in online commerce, while not commendable, is hardly worth the crocodile tears of CCTV's latest expose. The industry only accounts for one-tenth of all retailing, and fraud is common at China's street stalls, electronics malls and supermarkets.
What the report does is put the small but fast-growing industry on the same stage as the likes of Apple, Land Rover, VW, China Mobile and Gap, all of which have been targets over the past few years. (Foreign brands got off lightly this year.) While such consumer spotlights trigger public hand-wringing, they seldom hurt the companies much: Apple's China sales are still growing, while Land Rover's ills are tied to a slowing economy.
So while the nation's e-commerce leaders may be forced to offer public apologies after being featured on the 315 Gala, privately they may be offering quiet thanks.
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Tim Culpan in Taipei at firstname.lastname@example.org
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