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Activists target Alibaba's European hub plans

Protesters argue Liege logistics center bad for climate and environment

Watching Alibaba protesters piled up boxes in downtown Liege on Jan. 17 to signify how, in their view, Alibaba’s planned logistics hub would overwhelm the city. The labeled box reads, “Alibaba, we don’t want it.” (imago images/Belga)

HAMBURG, Germany -- Alibaba Group Holding executives shook hands with top Belgian leaders a year ago on a deal to make the eastern city of Liege the first European hub for the company's Electronic World Trade Platform. The e-commerce company promised to invest more than $80 million and hire hundreds of workers to operate a logistics center.

Now Watching Alibaba, a coalition of environmental and anti-globalization groups including Extinction Rebellion and the local branch of Greenpeace, have joined forces to try to halt the plan.

"Would it be a good idea to increase the number of flights given today's climate situation?" a member of the group rhetorically asked dozens of gathered protesters in downtown Liege on Jan. 17. "No!" they responded. "Do you want more trucks and highway pollution? No! Do you want noise at night? No!"

In addition to generating excessive road and air traffic and contributing to climate change, Watching Alibaba argues that Alibaba's hub would create just low-quality jobs. While its next protest is planned for March 7, Liege city councilman Francois Schreuer and other members are campaigning to stop the regional government of Wallonia from issuing the building permit Alibaba aims to get by midyear.

So far, the Belgian political establishment remains committed to the project. The cross-party coalition government of Wallonia, which does not include Schreuer's Vega, endorsed the Liege hub at its formation in September.

"This will be a huge opportunity to boost exports and bring wide-reaching economic benefits to society, including employment opportunities to Liege," said Charles Michel, then Belgium's prime minister and now president of the European Council, in December 2018. "This is an opportunity for not just the small businesses and young people in Belgium but across Europe."

After an extended three-week shutdown for the Lunar New Year holidays due to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Cainiao Smart Logistics Network, Alibaba's logistics arm, has resumed its three chartered cargo flights a week between Liege and the company's headquarters in Hangzhou. A new freight train service chartered by Cainiao began running weekly between Yiwu, a city near Hangzhou, and Liege in October.

Thanks to the boost from Cainiao, while overall European airfreight traffic declined 1.9% last year, Liege's cargo volume rose 3.6%.

"They (Alibaba) have from the start worked very well together with us and the local authorities," said Steven Verhasselt, commercial vice president of the airport.

Part of the attraction is that Liege is one of only a few European airports with flights and customs clearance possible around the clock.

Belgian officials lobbied hard for Alibaba's investment against competition from other European governments. Belgium's Princess Astrid led a large delegation to visit Alibaba's Hangzhou headquarters last November to thank the company for choosing Liege.

Alibaba aims to complete the first phase of its 220,000-sq.-meter smart logistics hub by next year. The company says the center and the Electronic World Trade Platform hub will make it easy for small and mid-sized European companies to send their goods quickly to distant customers.

"We strongly believe that under the eWTP platform, we will open up the huge potential opportunities for European SMEs to reap the benefits of global cross-border trade, especially into the China market where the demand for European goods is high," Daniel Zhang, now Alibaba's chairman and chief executive, said when the Liege deal was signed.

Pascal Martin, who focused on retail and consumer goods as a partner in Hong Kong at OC&C Strategy Consultants, said, "Liege is a very interesting step in Alibaba's international expansion strategy, initially supporting its Tmall Global platform which enables Chinese shoppers to buy directly from European brands that do not necessarily have Chinese presence yet."

Martin and others think Alibaba may intend to later use Liege to help support the growth of its fledging European consumer business, launch two years ago. It opened its first physical European store in Madrid last August.

Cedric Leterme, a Watching Alibaba activist, said the group is seeking support from FGTB, Wallonia's largest labor union to "build up political pressure against the project." He said that if the region does issue a building permit to Cainiao, the group will petition the Council of State, Belgium's top administrative court, to require a new environmental impact assessment, arguing that the previous one was based on inadequate data.

In 2004, European express delivery company DHL abandoned plans to develop a new hub at Brussels Airport amid controversy about increased night flights. 

Asked about Watching Alibaba's criticisms of its project, Derek Sun, Cainiao's general manager in Liege said in a statement: "We are working together with local partners and authorities in Belgium to create a smart logistics hub.

"The hub is intended to promote digitally enabled inclusive global trade, using technology so that small and medium-sized businesses from Belgium and around Europe can more easily participate in global trade opportunities."

Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writer Eri Sugiura.

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