Since 2022, dog food seller Liu Xiaoping has emerged as an unlikely hero to disgruntled e-commerce merchants on China’s popular shopping platform, Pinduoduo. Through social media videos, Liu coaches fellow merchants on using legal action to fight their biggest grievance — the platform’s unfair refund policies — and take customers to court. His followers fondly address him as “Lawsuit Bro.”

Pinduoduo merchants have long bemoaned the platform’s refund-without-return policy, which allows buyers to easily request refunds for defective products without having to return them. The problem, several sellers told Rest of World, is that Pinduoduo grants refunds much more liberally than other shopping platforms such as Alibaba’s Taobao or According to sellers, this allows shoppers to exploit the refund policy to snag freebies. Sellers, who must refund buyers in full, are forced to bear the cost.

Founded in 2015, Pinduoduo became one of China’s most popular e-commerce platforms through a strategy of cheap pricing and gamified shopping. But smaller merchants told Rest of World they have shouldered the burden of its rapid growth, been forced to offer ultra-cheap products, follow strict customer service rules, and abide by an unfair refund policy — or else risk being penalized by the platform. Some frustrated sellers have nicknamed Pinduoduo “Somalia,” comparing what they see as the company’s exploitative practices to the actions of Somali pirates.

Inspired by Liu, merchants have banded together to push back in both creative and problematic ways. These include filing lawsuits against buyers, and spamming Pinduoduo-backed stores with comments and refunds. On Douyin, TikTok’s sister app in China, where he commands a following of over 160,000, Liu teaches fellow merchants to sue buyers who exploit refund policies. In October last year, he also began selling documents with guidelines on how Pinduoduo merchants could fight refunds and various penalties, for 199 yuan ($29). More than 2,000 people bought the files on Douyin, Liu said. 

Through his online tutorials, Liu has popularized his strategies among the seller community. According to public court documents reviewed by Rest of World, from 2022 to 2023, sellers of smartphone cases, fishing cameras, clothing, and baby formula bottles have retrieved refunds from buyers, after the court determined that buyers should either pay back the money or return the products.

A screenshot from a Douyin video showing a Pinduoduo e-commerce seller during a comedy skit.

But some sellers have also turned to more hostile methods, like doxxing and harassing buyers. According to a public verdict from November 2022, a houseplant buyer alleged in court that a seller sent her joss papers — sheets of paper burned as offerings for the deceased — as an insult, after Pinduoduo granted her a 50 yuan refund for two leaking pots. A 23-year-old Pinduoduo user in Shenzhen, who requested anonymity to protect her privacy, told Rest of World the platform granted her a refund on a $3 storage box that looked different from the listed photo. She then received angry phone calls from the seller, who threatened to sue her. The lawsuit never happened, but she was scared, the customer said.

In a Douyin clip from March, Liu threatened that sellers could visit buyers’ parents, and in another video, shamed a female college student for requesting a refund for a vibrator. “You cannot get a boyfriend, but you get a refund. It shows you don’t have a kind heart,” he said in the clip. When asked by Rest of World about his threatening and shaming of buyers, Liu said that buyers are not innocent, and that they are the ones being immoral first. 

Liu doesn’t just target individual buyers for taking advantage of the refund policies, but also condemns Pinduoduo’s business model itself for enabling “freeloaders.” In two videos from March, Liu encouraged viewers to get back at Pinduoduo by flooding Duoduo Welfare Shop, reportedly the company’s online store, with hostile comments and refund requests. Following Liu’s passionate call to “take revenge,” fellow merchants attacked the shop, along with dozens of other stores they believed to be backed by Pinduoduo, including Nestlé’s flagship store. They spammed their customer services with refund requests — a tactic they dubbed “store-bombing.” Duoduo Welfare Shop was forced to shut hours later.

Pinduoduo did not respond to requests for comment before this article was published. After publication, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the company’s refund policy helps consumers seek redress for unsatisfactory purchases, and encourages merchants to serve buyers well. The spokesperson said that participants in the store-bombing incident were using the refund policy to justify their “malicious attacks,” and that Pinduoduo had helped cover the losses of targeted brand stores. “Strong evidence suggests that it is orchestrated by people behind the scenes with ulterior motives,” the statement read.

“Liu was the first person on the internet who dared to say “no” to the injustice.”

Weishao, a Sichuan-based homeware seller who preferred to use a pseudonym for fear of being identified by Pinduoduo, told Rest of World he participated in the store-bombing. He said he ordered several bags of instant coffee from the Nestlé store, and planned to request refunds because he believed big companies like Pinduoduo deserved to get a taste of their own medicine. Pinduoduo later blocked this order. Sellers who have been on the platform for several years, like Weishao, told Rest of World they had noticed an increase in refunds over the past year. “Liu was the first person on the internet who dared to say “no” to the injustice,” Weishao said.

Liu said he never planned to become an e-commerce vigilante. Born and raised in the eastern city of Huaian, in Jiangsu province, Liu said he studied history in college and had wanted to become a civil servant. After failing to land a job at the local education bureau, he opened a photography studio, which went bankrupt in 2007. Liu then set up a men’s underwear business on Taobao. 

In 2021, when the Taobao business was struggling, Liu opened a store on Pinduoduo, selling Royal Canin dog food and other pet supplies. Given its focus on bargain products, the platform had become a new favorite for small merchants who lacked the resources necessary to compete with corporate sellers on Taobao and As long as they keep prices low, Pinduoduo sellers told Rest of World, they get good traffic on the platform. 

But Liu soon grew frustrated with Pinduoduo’s “refund without return” policy. He said shoppers could demand refunds without providing evidence, and his attempts to block the refunds were rejected by the site. During his first 10 months on Pinduoduo, he refunded customers 117,000 yuan ($17,084) in total, Liu told Rest of World.

¥117,000 The amount in refunds Liu gave costumers during his first 10 months on Pinduoduo.

Liu said he brought his grievances to a Pinduoduo representative at the company’s Shanghai headquarters later in 2021, but cops took him to the police station and told him to go home. So he turned to a lawyer, who suggested he sue buyers for breach of contract. Liu claimed that his first lawsuit succeeded: He proved a buyer had used a fake image from the internet to claim their dog was pooping blood after eating dog food bought from Liu’s store. 

Since then, Liu said, he has sued more than 20 buyers, and won all but one case. Rest of World was unable to independently verify the success of these lawsuits. Liu said merchants had also sued Pinduoduo for its penalties against poor customer service. Several sellers told Rest of World the platform’s algorithm would fine them up to 300 yuan ($44) for impolite language, even when they were texting in a friendly manner. 

According to Lin Zhang, an assistant professor with the University of New Hampshire who studies China’s digital economy, one of the reasons why Pinduoduo has achieved fast growth is because the platform saves costs on customer services, using algorithms to address buyers’ complaints and letting sellers mediate their own conflicts. Without sufficient channels to voice their grievances, small merchants sometimes negotiate with platforms by taking collective action, Zhang told Rest of Word.

A screenshot from a Douyin video showing a Pinduoduo e-commerce seller speaking to a camera.

For example, in 2016, small businesses in some cities boycotted delivery app Meituan for raising commission fee rates. In 2011, Taobao sellers paralyzed brand-name stores by placing orders and refusing to pay, as a way of venting their anger towards Taobao’s hike in service fees and deposits – money deducted from sellers if they violated contracts. In response, Jack Ma delayed the implementation of the raised fees for some merchants.

The store-bombing by Pinduoduo sellers last March is another example of such collective action. Five merchants told Rest of World that though they did not join in, they sympathized with the motivations behind the incident. “Wherever there is suppression, there is resistance,” said Yang Bing, a nut seller from rural Henan province, quoting Chairman Mao. 

Jane Lin, a home appliance seller in Guangdong province, said that after the store-bombing incident, merchants created new chat groups on WeChat and Xiaohongshu to discuss anti-refund strategies. “If there was a good space for merchants to speak up, people would not do something like this,” Lin said. “Many people did this together, which really shows the platform and its policies are problematic.” 

Lizhi Liu, an assistant professor with Georgetown University who studies China’s e-commerce industry, told Rest of World that while protests against the government bring significant risk to the participants, authorities are more likely to tolerate revolts against private companies. The latest protest could prompt Pinduoduo to become more cautious in setting its policies, she said. 

After the store-bombing took place, said Liu, a person phoning on behalf of Pinduoduo asked him to call for an end to the spamming. Liu said he was not scared, and he only hoped Pinduoduo would change its policies so he could take a break from activism. Today, most of Liu’s income comes from a Tmall store that sells livestreaming equipment, but he said he keeps the dog food store running on Pinduoduo, just so that he can continue to collect evidence of the platform’s exploitative policies. “When people see injustice, they either fight or quit,” he said. “If we quit and go to other platforms, we wouldn’t do well, either. So we choose to fight it.”