Amazon.com promoted Chinese propaganda and removed negative reviews for collections of texts and speeches by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in order to maintain its access to the Chinese market, according to a new report by Reuters on Friday.
According to two people with knowledge of the decision, Amazon had been selling collections of Xi’s texts — including “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” — when the Chinese government reached out to the online retail giant in 2019, demanding that it turn off its ratings and comments features after negative reviews began to surface.
One source for Reuters said China’s calls for censorship came after the first negative review appeared on the website. “I think the issue was anything under five stars,” the highest rating in Amazon’s five-point system,” the other source said.
Currently, no reviews exist on Amazon’s China-facing website for various texts versions of “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China.” For other books like “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech series” and “Thirty Lectures on Xi Jinping’s Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” only single five-star reviews can be found on the website.
Negative reviews can still be found for some of Xi’s works on the U.S. version of the website, with many of the negative reviews have come through in the days since Reuters first reported on the company’s censorship for its China-facing website.
The 2019 censorship actions are reportedly part of a large, decade-long effort by Amazon to maintain positive business relations with China, which is one of the world’s largest markets.
According to a 2018 internal document shared with Reuters, Amazon acknowledged “ideological control and propaganda is the core of the toolkit for the communist party to achieve and maintain its success” in China. Despite noting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) heavy reliance on ideological control and propaganda to achieve its governing stability the company said, “We are not making judgment on whether it is right or wrong.”
The 2018 document was part of a briefing for Jay Carney, the global head of Amazon’s lobbying. Before working for Amazon, Carney served as the White House press secretary for President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014.
The briefing documents further informed Carney that Amazon’s Kindle e-reader service had been “operating in China in a policy grey area” as the company struggled to obtain a license to sell many of its e-books in the country. The briefing documents stated that, given Amazon’s legal gray area with Kindle e-book operations, the “key element to safeguard” their China-facing business operations was the “Chinabooks project.”
The China Books project” was one project intended to win favor with Chinese regulators. The project included a special sales portal that linked to a slate of China-related books. Many of the books were apolitical titles, such as Chinese language textbooks, cookbooks and collections of children’s bedtime stories, but also included a number of more political titles meant to amplify CCP narratives.
One particular book in Amazon’s China Books project, “Incredible Xinjiang: Stories of Passion and Heritage,” promotes an idyllic view of life in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1.8 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are believed to be held at internment camps by the Chinese government. The book includes passages about an online comedy show based in the region and quotes an actor who plays a Uyghur “country bumpkin” character, who said that ethnicity is “not a problem” in Xinjiang.
Other books on Amazon’s Chinabooks project portray China’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in glowing positive terms.
According to Reuters, Amazon’s China Books project hasn’t generated significant revenue, but Amazon saw the project as crucial to winning support in China as it expanded its Kindle services to the Chinese market.
Responding to a Reuters request for comment, Amazon said it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations, wherever we operate, and China is no exception.” The e-commerce giant added that “as a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word and diverse perspectives is important. That includes books that some may find objectionable.”