No pussyfooting around in fight with copycats: Ma

Mr Ma says less than 10 per cent of the leads his company has provided to the authorities led to successful prosecution.
Mr Ma says less than 10 per cent of the leads his company has provided to the authorities led to successful prosecution.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Alibaba boss calls for China to punish counterfeiters as harshly as drink drivers

BEIJING • Billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma wants China's top lawmakers to come down harder on fake goods - the very same plea voiced by global brands which have accused the e-commerce service of harbouring knock-offs.

The Alibaba Group chairman appealed to the National People's Congress convening in Beijing this week to penalise counterfeiters as harshly as drink drivers.

In an open letter published on his social media Weibo account yesterday, Mr Ma said enforcement had been too lax. He urged the authorities to raise maximum prison sentences and other penalties to deter illegal profiteers.

The unusual public entreaty follows persistent criticism that he and his company have not done enough to swat copycats.

In a major embarrassment, Alibaba was again labelled a "notorious market" last year by the US Office of the Trade Representative (USTR) - just four years after escaping the label.

It is a list that includes torrent website Pirate Bay and flea markets from Brazil to Nigeria.

"We need to fight counterfeits the same way we fight drink driving," Mr Ma wrote in his letter.

"No one company can do it alone. The existing laws are lagging, failing to impose actual threats on the behaviour of counterfeiters and leave far too much room for cheating."

Winning the trust of foreign brands is key to realising Mr Ma's ambitions of global expansion.

But Alibaba still fends off accusations about its unwillingness or inability to eradicate fakes from its platforms, the subject of a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Kering, a conglomerate which owns luxury labels such as Gucci and Balenciaga.

The Chinese e-commerce giant has countered by saying it is doing all it can to take down fakes. It removed 380 million product listings and closed about 180,000 stores on its Taobao platform in the 12 months to August, the company said in a letter to the USTR.

In this week's missive, Mr Ma said there has been plenty of rhetoric but little decisive action from the authorities on combating fake goods, which he compared to the hazardous smog infamous for enveloping Beijing and other Chinese cities.

Knock-offs remain rampant in the country as a result, he noted.

He even compared ridding China of fakes to fighting the famed Battle on Shangganling Mountain, where Chinese forces were said to have beaten back the US and South Korean militaries in the Korean War.

Outdated laws - such as those dismissing criminal responsibility for manufacturers which produce goods worth less than 50,000 yuan (S$10,200) - render Alibaba's own efforts to curb counterfeits futile, Mr Ma argued.

Less than 10 per cent of the leads the company has provided to the authorities led to successful criminal prosecution, he added.

"There is a lot of bark around stopping counterfeits but no bite," Mr Ma said. "This reality only encourages more people to produce and sell fake goods."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'No pussyfooting around in fight with copycats: Ma'. Print Edition | Subscribe