TikTok school
Chinese businesses are increasingly selling directly to foreign consumers through TikTok. Screenshot / TaiwanPlus News

At an e-commerce school, Chinese students practice selling clothes to overseas TikTok users. To understand their target audience, they record themselves on camera wearing hijabs and abaya gowns over casual clothing.

It's the final day of a two-week course on selling products abroad via the short video app TikTok. Despite being blocked in China, this platform is increasingly popular among Chinese vendors.

To succeed on TikTok, Chinese vendors face a double challenge: bypassing internet restrictions and mastering foreign languages. This hurdle has fueled a boom in courses and consulting services.

In a Guangzhou classroom, an instructor showcases Middle Eastern-inspired garments to the camera, reeling off prices and sizing details for Muslim customers in the UK. "This is chiffon; it's really breathable!" the instructor raves in English as her students model the goods and sort through racks of satin robes under the harsh studio lights.

Wang Yaxuan, a 27-year-old instructor at the school, told AFP (via France24), "We teach people which products are selling better and which markets are more suitable for their current stages." Guangdong's factory has a reputation for churning out a mind-boggling variety of products, from fashionable garments to espresso machine parts and even wigs made of human hair.

Shifting gears from solely manufacturing, Chinese companies are taking control of their brands by marketing directly to overseas consumers. Shein, the Chinese fast fashion giant which applied for a New York listing amid forced labour acquisition last year, has become a significant player in the budget-conscious Western market.

The brand heavily relies on TikTok as a key driver of its sales success. Following successful launches of e-commerce features in Britain and Southeast Asia, TikTok Shop arrived in the United States late last year. However, the platform recently raised seller fees and cancelled large discounts.

A casual scroll through TikTok's "Live" tab can land users on multiple shopping livestreams within minutes. However, since the app isn't available in China, parent company ByteDance operates the more tightly controlled Douyin domestically.

Courses like the one at Mede Education Technology's e-commerce school offer comprehensive training, from creating a TikTok account to handling shipping and analysing sales data. Fees start at around 9,000 yuan (£994.45) for a six-day program.

Students come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from factory owners to fresh graduates. They often seek training for multiple foreign shopping platforms, including Amazon and Southeast Asia's Shopee.

The Legal Tightrope: VPNs and China's Regulations

Qiu Zhouwen, a participant in his 30s, works for a Guangzhou cosmetics company hoping to leverage TikTok to sell their skincare range. That's why they enrolled him in this course.

"Information is part of the cost (of doing business) now, and if you don't have the information that's appropriate to the market, your cost will be way too high," Qiu says.

According to Wang, a Mede instructor with experience abroad, adapting to different consumer tastes overseas is a significant hurdle for Chinese sellers. There's no dearth of technical hurdles as well.

To bypass China's "Great Firewall" and access TikTok, sellers often rely on VPN software. However, this approach comes with challenges, as the app itself tries to curb users manipulating their IP addresses.

Additionally, VPNs operate in a legal grey area in China. While authorities generally tolerate their use for business purposes, there have been occasional crackdowns. This can make them a risky proposition.

TikTok is not immune to global political tensions. The US Congress is evaluating a ban due to data security anxieties, specifically the possibility of user information being shared with the Chinese government.