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China's 'Single's Day' shopping festival subdued by tech crackdown

By AFP - Nov 11,2021 - Last updated at Nov 11,2021

SHANGHAI — China on Thursday held a ‘subdued’ version of its annual "Single's Day" shopping spree.

The world's biggest shopping festival has for years been accompanied by aggressive promotions and breathless hourly updates by industry leader Alibaba detailing ever-rising sales figures equal to the annual gross domestic product of many nations.

But there were no rolling tallies or triumphant comments by executives from major platforms as of midday Thursday, and the whole affair was virtually ignored by state-controlled media in an indication that the feverish former sales hype might be a thing of the past. 

"Single's Day" -- so-called for its 11.11 date -- began more than a decade ago and for years was a one-day, 24-hour event.

But Alibaba and its rivals have expanded that out to an extended promotion from November 1-11, while some retailers and platforms offered discounts, special offers and pre-sales as early as October. 

"Single's Day" dwarfs the pre-Christmas "Black Friday" promotion in the United States and has become a closely watched barometer of consumer sentiment in the world's second-largest economy.

Platforms operated by Alibaba and its closest competitor reported combined sales of $115 billion last year.

But the usual buzz was muted on Thursday with ecommerce platforms keeping their heads down owing to the government scrutiny.

The government has taken aim at alleged abuse of user data and monopolistic business practices by online giants, but also appears motivated in part by wider concerns that Big Tech had become too powerful and unregulated. 

Alibaba had said earlier that hundreds of brands had enjoyed a stronger start from November 1 compared with the previous year, but provided no figures.

The government scrutiny has rattled big players like Alibaba, Tencent, and JD, slicing billions of dollars of their equity values, but experts say the ruling Communist Party is not about to significantly hobble ecommerce.

The party is waging a long-term campaign to diversify China's economy away from an over-dependence on manufacturing, exports and government investment, toward a more market-based, consumer-driven model.

Tech giants have aided greatly in this effort, and Chinese executives have said the pandemic has boosted online purchases further, partly by discouraging in-person shopping in crowded stores.

But if Thursday is any indication, "Single's Day" may be a much quieter event in the future.

The government is pushing a new "common prosperity" theme that takes aim at the super-rich and excessive corporate power, and espouses a more equitable distribution of China's economic gains.

"Single's Day's" aggressive sales pitches and celebration of rampant consumerism may be viewed by the ruling Communist Party as conflicting with those objectives.

Last weekend, the government issued special "Single's Day" guidelines reminding platforms that misleading claims on discounts or product efficacy, manipulating sales figures, and selling counterfeit products, were all strictly forbidden.

Chinese state media have reported less aggressive promotional activity this year.

"Although the excitement remains, the smell of gunpowder among the ecommerce giants is significantly weakened," respected financial-news website said in a recent report.

"Single's Day" normally generates big headlines in China but it went virtually ignored on Thursday, with many top state-run media outlets focusing instead on the 62nd anniversary of the founding of China's air force, which falls on the same date.

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