Taobao, which is owned by Alibaba, has just made it harder to get its hands on foreign publications in Mainland China. Recently, the platform announced that its sellers will no longer be able to sell or trade in “media” produced overseas – including both publications and electronic media.

Alibaba
Image source: hinglish Notes – Flickr

Based on decades-old regulation

Tn an announcement made on March 3, the company said the rule was needed for the proper management of market orders and provision of a safe shopping environment. Taobao based its decision on a customs regulation dating back to 1991, which lays down rules for incoming printed material that individuals might bring with them or order by post.

According to Taobao, the rule even applies to Chinese state-owned publishers, including Xinhua. However, the company gave no information on why it is using this decades-old regulation now for justifying the ban.

One reason could be that the company does not want to be on Chinese authorities’ hate lists, especially when the country has been cracking down on publishers in the past few years. Also with such a move, Taobao and its parent company Alibaba may want to tackle IP-related issues on the platform.

Taobao faced serious accusations from Marco Polo Group CEO Huang Jianping, who said that it is functioning as a black market. Jianping also raised questions about the seriousness of the IP enforcement work that Alibaba has claims to work upon.

A surprising decision from Alibaba

Nevertheless, the decision still sounds very surprising, as Taobao has long served as a gray market for overseas printed materials banned by the Chinese government. This became an even more serious matter when five people were allegedly kidnapped and linked to Hong Kong-based book publisher Causeway Bay Books in 2015, notes AimGroup.

Previously, anyone interested in accessing overseas publications free from censors could easily head over to Alibaba’s online shopping platform and get their dose of entertainment. This was largely due to the platform’s business model, which allows individual vendors to directly get in touch with prospective customers for business purposes, notes Quartz.

As of now, it’s unclear what all is blocked, with some saying that Taobao has banned only political books. However, the fact is that affected parties – publishers, overseas agents, or even customers – can do nothing about this other than just comply with the official order. According to Quartz, one Weibo user even referred to Taobao’s announcement as a setback for personal freedom.