Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, has been engaged in the practice of marketing Chinese government propaganda in an effort to court Chinese government regulators. The company, which was founded by Jeff Bezos, created what it calls the “China Books” project to court the government and gain access to the Chinese online retail market.
Details of the project surfaced late last week after Reuters reported on Amazon’s special treatment of a collection of Chairman Xi Jinping’s writings two years ago. Ratings and reviews were disabled for the government-published book after a handful of less-than-perfect reviews were posted.
The Chinese government responded to the reviews by demanding that the online retailer disable its ratings and comments in response to the negative feedback.
Reuters reported late last week that two insiders close to the decision told the publication that Amazon’s sale of Xi’s texts, which includes Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, received some negative reviews, prompting the government to demand the retailer to turn off two of its key features.
“I think the issue was anything under five stars,” said one of the sources. Five stars is the highest rating available on Amazon’s five-point system. Amazon uses its ratings and review system as a means to engage shoppers in both domestic and international markets.
Amazon’s Chinese website, Amazon.cn, still retains its reviews and rating system, but the feature has been disabled for the government-published book with Xi’s byline. The comments section is also disabled.
According to Reuters, Amazon’s compliance with the Chinese government’s demand has not been reported on before now, and is said to be part of a decade-long effort by the online retailer to win favor in Beijing to grow its business in the world’s largest retail market.
An internal 2018 Amazon briefing document that describes the company's China business lays out a number of “Core Issues” the Seattle-based giant has faced in the country. Among them: “Ideological control and propaganda is the core of the toolkit for the communist party to achieve and maintain its success,” the document notes. “We are not making judgement on whether it is right or wrong.”
That briefing document, and interviews with more than two dozen people who have been involved in Amazon's China operation, reveal how the company has survived and thrived in China by helping to further the ruling Communist Party's global economic and political agenda, while at times pushing back on some government demands.
In a core element of this strategy, the internal document and interviews show, Amazon partnered with an arm of China's propaganda apparatus to create a selling portal on the company's U.S. site, Amazon.com — a project that came to be known as China Books. The venture — which eventually offered more than 90,000 publications for sale — hasn't generated significant revenue. But the document shows that it was seen by Amazon as crucial to winning support in China as the company grew its Kindle electronic-book device, cloud-computing and e-commerce businesses.
According to the 2018 briefing document reviewed by the publication, Jay Carney, the global head of Amazon’s lobby and public-policy operations, notes that the company was struggling to obtain a licence to sell ebooks in China. As a result of the problem, Amazon devised what it calls the “China Books” project to work with Chinese regulators.
The project includes publishing and marketing numerous apolitical titles, such as textbooks, cook books, and even children’s stories.
But the project also includes titles that promote the Chinese Communist Party’s official line, such as a book on life in Xinjiang titled Incredible Xinjiang: Stories of Passion and Heritage which extols living in the region said to play host to numerous reeducation camps.
British and American intelligence experts say that over one million ethnic Uyghurs are housed in such camps, which play no part at all in the book.
Other books portray China’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic which began in Wuhan in heroic terms. Reuters reports:
One is titled Stories of Courage and Determination: Wuhan in Coronavirus Lockdown. Another begins with commentary from Xi: “Our success to date has once again demonstrated the strengths of CPC (the Communist Party of China) leadership and Chinese socialism.”
In response to the report, Amazon claims to merely comply with local laws and regulations in all countries where it operates, declining to comment on the specific allegations.