On October 10 2011 one of China’s largest retail websites, Taobao Mall – known as Tmall – announced a new set of rules, which included the imposition of a high annual technical service fee and an increased security deposit for its vendors. Tmall stated that the new rules were intended to ensure the provision of high-quality goods and services and to discourage counterfeiting and price wars.
The previous minimum annual fees of Rmb6,000 were raised to between Rmb30,000 and Rmb60,000, while the security deposit was raised from Rmb10,000 to Rmb50,000, Rmb100,000 or Rmb150,000, depending on the size of the business-to-consumer vendor. Smaller vendors protested by disrupting the online platform, using communication tools such as YY Voice to attack companies with a larger presence on Tmall. The incident sent ripples through the worlds of business, academia and politics, with many critics arguing that the price-rise policy may constitute an abuse of dominant position under the Anti-Monopoly Law.
Determining dominant position in a given market is problematic; in most cases, it requires comprehensive market research and subtle, detailed analysis. The answer may be the length of an academic paper and may take weeks to compile and express clearly. If it is assumed that Tmall holds a dominant position, there remains the question of whether its behaviour can be deemed an abuse under the law.
Article 17(1) states that an abuse consists in imposing unfairly high sale prices or unfairly low purchase prices. On the sale side, "excessive" prices may be unfair. Excessive pricing is the most obvious way in which a monopolist can exploit its position to the detriment of consumers in the short term. However, it is often argued that a free market economy needs the lure of monopoly pricing. On this analysis, the opportunity to charge monopoly prices – at least for a short period – is what attracts business acumen in the first place, encouraging the risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.
Furthermore, excessive prices may be pro-competitive, as high prices and profits may act as a signal to attract new competitors to the market. Therefore, high prices – within reasonable limits – should not automatically be deemed excessive or unfair.
It is unquestionably difficult to decide what constitutes an excessive or unfair price. Given that it is rarely possible to ascertain what the price might have been in a more competitive market, what other yardstick can be used? How should competition policies be balanced against state policies in other sectors, given China’s macroeconomic background? Should such a policy protect small and medium-sized businesses or encourage emerging business? All of these questions should be considered when deciding whether Tmall’s price-rise policy should be classified as abusive.