Amazon China Moves Signal New Ambitions in Battle Against Alibaba

Published on . is hiring by the hundreds in China to fill jobs ranging from internet software engineers to designers for Alexa, positioning the company to recoup some of the market share it lost to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in the world's largest online shopping arena.

Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

The online retail giant lists almost 400 Chinese-based openings on its careers website and more than 900 on LinkedIn. They include senior executives to manage and acquire content, a leader to expand its fledgling Amazon Lending program and a head for its storefront on Alibaba's Tmall. And it's hiring a hardware engineer to, among other things, evangelize for digital assistant Alexa, which works with third party products even though the Echo speaker isn't available in China.

While the Seattle-based company still sells goods from abroad to Chinese consumers and has local cloud computing customers, Amazon's been relegated to a bit player in a domestic e-commerce market dominated by Alibaba and JD.Com. But like fellow U.S. companies Facebook and Google, it isn't giving up on the world's most populous nation despite powerful domestic players and increasing government restrictions on foreign businesses.

China's limits on foreign companies, and the savvy of local operators, has given rise to an alternate web universe on the mainland. While Amazon strikes fear into rivals around the world, in China it's dwarfed by Alibaba. Facebook's reach stops at the border as Tencent Holdings Ltd. and WeChat rule social networking while Baidu Inc. is top of the search pile in Google's absence.

Like Amazon, Google is also hiring in China, even though its search service is banned in the world's biggest internet market. At least 20 positions based in Beijing are advertised on the company's careers site, spanning engineering and marketing to product managers. Multiple listings are shown in the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Some of the jobs were first flagged in May by Jia Li, Google's head of machine learning and AI research and development, when the company hosted a summit on the field in the historic Chinese town of Wuzhen. There has long been speculation that Google wants to get its search engine back up in China, the biggest hole in its global dominance of web advertising.

Amazon wants to be seen as a global distribution network, not just a way to reach U.S. customers. The company is encouraging its more than two million merchants, many who only sell in the U.S., to use Amazon to reach international markets. It offers services for language translation, currency conversion and tariffs to streamline the process for merchants who think it's too cumbersome and costly to sell abroad.

Amazon's market share in China continues to shrink in the face of fierce competition. Its sales represented just 1.1 percent of China's online gross merchandise value in 2015, and by 2016 that figure had dropped to 0.8 percent, according to an ICBC note that cited iResearch.

But Amazon has used its global reputation to keep a foothold in the business of importing goods for China's rising middle class, who seek safe foods and authenticity. In the fourth quarter of 2016, Amazon controlled 7 percent of the country's cross-border commerce, according to ICBC. It launched its Prime free-shipping service in late 2016.

"In this past two years, Amazon's recognized the trend of rising Chinese consumption and persisted in developing its cross-border business," said Chen Tao, a researcher with Analysys. "The addition of the Prime program propelled that and it's had fair success with the business."

It's unclear whether the current talent hunt is significantly accelerated from previous years. Amazon didn't respond to an emailed request for comment.

This year, it started hiring HR executives to staff a new regional "shared-services hub" in Beijing. A new office in Hangzhou – Alibaba's hometown – is hiring sales team leaders empowered to headhunt more staff., a Chinese e-commerce platform acquired by Amazon in 2004, is hiring logistics and delivery partners.

Beyond e-commerce, it's building a Chinese content team to woo studio heads and negotiate deals for local movies and TV shows, including original content. But launching a domestic video service would be a bold step in a country where media is heavily censored by regulators. Netflix chose to sell content to local player iQiyi instead of entering the market directly, while Apple's movie service has been blocked since 2016.

"Help create the future of Chinese digital entertainment with Amazon," one listing read.

In retail, Amazon is investing billions to ramp up its operations across Asia, particularly in India. It entered Singapore this year, firing the first salvo in what could be a fierce battle with Alibaba and local players for Southeast Asia.

The battle's proven difficult in China, much as it has for its American technology counterparts. Facebook's main social networking service has been banned since 2009, yet it secretly launched an app under a different name with Colorful Balloons. The company, which is said to have scouted for office space, has made no secret of its interest and works with advertisers there keen to reach a global audience.

--Bloomberg News

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