The United States and China have been exchanging blows over the past year in their trade dispute with both announcing tariffs in response to the other’s moves. It was only this December that both countries eased off in their tit-for-tat, delaying the enactment of new tariff increases as the countries negotiate.

But while most eyes are focused on the import and export of physical goods, the internet is emerging to be an important front in this US and China showdown. The recent data breach of Marriott hotel’s guest database that exposed the data of 500 million individuals is suspected to be done by state-sponsored Chinese actors. Whether or not this would go down officially as part of the trade war, the circumstances still look awfully suspicious. US companies and government agencies have been targeted by cyber attacks of Chinese origin before.

Interestingly, Amazon is yet another US-based company that is caught in the middle of the tension between the two countries. But unlike the Marriott breach which appears to be a one-off event for the company, Amazon has ongoing Chinese-related issues, which if scrutinized the echo allegations of unfair business practices being claimed by the US. Here are three key issues in the Amazon marketplace that illustrate how China’s practices are creating an uneven playing field.


This issue may not be getting much mileage but Amazon may already be in the midst of a wide-scale data leak. Recently, there have been concerns raised against Chinese payment processors Pingpong and Lianlian Pay who are allegedly asking their partner Amazon sellers to supply them with the secret keys to their Amazon Marketplace Web Service (MWS) accounts.

Amazon merchants typically have to partner with a Chinese service provider to handle payments. As such, they need to integrate systems so that order and payment information can be shared across parties and process transactions. However, letting third parties use secret keys is not the ideal method to achieve this and is actually considered a security risk. Instead, MWS has secure methods that developers can implement.

Secret keys provide the highest levels of access and could be used to access personal and financial information of customers. Considering that some sellers already hint at actually revealing their secret keys to processors, it’s possible that customer data have already been leaked.


The dominance of Chinese merchants on the platform is another issue that shouldn’t be overlooked. Over a third of Amazon’s top sellers come from China and many of them take advantage of being based close to the factories. Developments in cross-border payments technology and fulfillment services allow these sellers to offer goods directly to global customers at low prices. By sourcing their inventories directly from manufacturers, they also get to enjoy larger margins and minimal overhead.

US claims of intellectual property theft also aren’t unfounded. Numerous fake and counterfeit products made in China are making their way to customers through Amazon sellers. The non-profit website The Counterfeit Report, which aggregates fake products found on most e-commerce platforms found over 60,000 fake items listed on Amazon, and many of which are sold by Chinese merchants.

US businesses are also struggling to cope with the pressures of participating on the platform. As higher labor and manufacturing costs stateside make sourcing locally manufactured goods impractical as the cost would push product prices higher than Chinese-made products.

And, even if a product is unique, China will most likely be able to reverse engineer these products and produce low-cost rip-offs quickly. Many artists and makers already had their designs stolen and counterfeited.


Chinese participants are also aggressively manipulating the marketplace. The Wall Street Journal found that unscrupulous sellers are using fake reviews, artificial sales, and even bribes in order to boost their profiles and product listings on Amazon.

Amazon uses its own algorithm to rank products listed on the platform, which factors in price and positive reviews among other metrics. However, sellers are now able to game the system. Even the once-trusted “Amazon’s Choice” label can’t be accurately used as the basis for the legitimacy of both product and seller. Bots and click farms are now also used to generate positive reviews for these merchants. Some sellers even barrage competitors with negative reviews to snuff out the competition.

Even Amazon’s presence in China has made it possible for merchants to bribe employees to leak and alter data.

What This Means

Tensions between the US and China can only be expected to continue considering the temperament of both countries’ leadership. As such, it is important to keep track of how participants from these countries operate on global marketplaces and platforms.

Amazon serves users worldwide and malicious actions that are designed to stymie one nation could have an impact on everyone else. China’s activities on Amazon should warrant thorough investigation and decisive action from the company. The continued tolerance of such activities puts not only US sellers and buyers at a great disadvantage but all other well-meaning Amazon participants around the world as well.

While it is important for anyone conducting business online to exercise due diligence, it also helps if the ecosystem promotes trust and fair trade. Customer experience would be greatly improved if users can trust that the parties they engage with on the platform are legitimate and trustworthy.

Considering the gravity of these concerns, Amazon would do well addressing these issues and ensuring that the platform doesn’t devolve into a chaotic battleground for the two disputing countries while everyone else suffers.