Alibaba follows Amazon, eBay in banning Confederate flag sales after racist attack in US

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 5:34pm

Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce operator, followed its American counterparts including Amazon, eBay and Wal-Mart on Wednesday by banning sales of merchandise bearing the controversial Confederate flag.

“Alibaba Group prohibits listings of materials that are ethnically or racially offensive across its platforms,” a spokesperson for the company told the South China Morning Post via email.

“As such, we will be removing listings for flags, clothing and other memorabilia that display the Confederate flag imagery.” 

Associated with slavery in pre-abolition America, the flag has become a hot-button topic in the wake of several high profile cases of racially charged attacks in the US.

The ban came into effect among retailers and e-commerce players in the country after nine people were shot dead in a historically African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina last week. 

Public outrage was stirred when photos came to light showing 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, the lead suspect in the attack, holding a gun and the controversial flag.

Also known as the “rebel flag”, it served as the official banner of the Confederate States of America, a body of seven slave-owning states, during the (1861-65) American Civil War. Today, it is seen as a symbol of racism for many Americans.

Several thousand protesters gathered at South Carolina's state legislature on Sunday demanding that the Confederate flag hanging on the premises be taken down

As momentum built, US department store chain Sears and discount retailer Kmart added their names to the list of major online retailers in the US taking action to prohibit sales of goods bearing the offending insignia. 

Alibaba, which enjoyed a record breaking US$25 billion listing in New York last September that buoyed the personal finances of billionaire owner Jack Ma, has now followed suit, one day after its top rivals in the US made the same move.

Since its IPO, the company has drawn increasing attention in overseas markets like the US, where it is striving to contend with the likes of Amazon and eBay. This week however, Alibaba sold off its American subsidiary 11Main as it moves to attract more foreign brands to its China business. 

After eBay introduced a ban earlier this week, sales of Confederate merchandise on Amazon went through the roof. Within 24 hours, sales of one version of the flag jumped by a whopping 352,192 per cent, Amazon said.

A search for "Confederate flag" on Amazon returned only 68 results as of 4pm Hong Kong time. An hour ago, the number of results was in the tens of thousands. 

Meanwhile, on Alibaba’s Taobao online marketplace and Tmall spin-off, there were still 44 items bearing the image of the Civil War-era battle flag for sale as of Wednesday afternoon. Not all vendors had yet been informed of the ban, Alibaba said.

One Chinese merchant who sells versions of the flag made of polyester on Taobao told the Post that demand for such products has always been weak.