Inviting Alibaba into Liège Airport has been bad for Belgium, VUB professor Jonathan Holslag states. The promise that Belgian companies would be able to export to China has not been fulfilled, while the government is missing out on millions of euros in import duties.
Pawn of Chinese government
Alibaba was welcomed into Liege airport with much pomp and circumstance in 2018, as the Chinese e-commerce giant promised to make it a European logistics hub. It was supposed to bring new jobs and activity to the region, but according to the professor, it mainly brought in a Trojan horse. In his new report, Holslag confirms some of the findings of RetailDetail authors Jorg Snoeck and Pauline Neerman in their book The Future of Shopping.
Like all big Chinese companies, Alibaba is partly a pawn of the Chinese government, and its logistics hub in Liège plays a key role in President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ strategy. That strategy wants to revive the centuries-old Silk Road with global trade routes – but the trade is not only in products, nor does it always turn out to be two-way traffic..
Almost exclusively one-way traffic
Answering a parliamentary question, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne had to admit that it is “more than likely” that activities of spying and leaking citizens’ personal data are happening via the Alibaba hub in Liège. After all, any Chinese company has to give the government access to its facilities and its data.
Although Alibaba regularly calls on Belgian brands and manufacturers to sell through its platforms in China, its business-to-consumer traffic is said to consist almost exclusively of imports to Europe. In the report, customs officials state that “almost no Belgian companies export through Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms”. The pharmaceutical and chemical industries use the airport for exports the most, while conversely as many as 650 million parcels arrived from China in 2021. The empty weight was 21 % greater than the loaded weight, the study said.
One in five parcels checked
Some things also go wrong in checking and processing those 650 million parcels, Holslag believes. Customs services are said to be absolutely incapable of ensuring security and correct taxation. More so: some customs officials stated that “Chinese e-commerce traffic is even more difficult to manage than the illegal cocaine trade, and Chinese companies more resourceful than the drug mafia”. For example, products are mislabelled or packaged to make them appear worth less or to hide the fact that they are counterfeits.
The understaffed customs officers cannot cope: in 2022, barely 19 % of Alibaba parcels were physically checked. Packages worth less than 150 euros are checked even less often. Thus, the Belgian government may be missing hundreds of millions of euros in import duties every year. On a one-day punctuality, fines and taxes already ran into the millions…