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China goes after Western retailers over Xinjiang cotton

March 25, 2021

China's wrath at Swedish retailer H&M and Nike sportswear over their past remarks on "forced labor" in cotton-hub Xinjiang has expanded to other Western brands. The criticism comes hot on the heels of fresh sanctions.

China Kampagne gegen westliche Mode- und Sportfirmen
Chinese state media called for a boycott of H&M, which said it would stop buying Xinjiang cottonImage: Florence Lo/REUTERS

Beijing's umbrage against Western sanctions over alleged abuses of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province swept Chinese social media Thursday, with users ostracizing further global clothing and footwear brands.

Two Chinese TV stars, Wang Yibo and Tan Songyun, said they would end promotional work for sportswear globalist Nike over remarks it made last year.

This followed Monday's travel and financial sanctions set by the EU, the USA, Britain and Canada on four senior Chinese officials blamed for abuses in Xinjiang — and retaliatory Chinese sanctions on EU lawmakers and entities.

In January, Washington had banned Xinjiang cotton used widely by clothing producers for Western markets.

Calls to avoid brands critical of Chinese abuses

On Thursday, internet users, initially focused on Swedish retailer H&M over its March 2020 remark that it was "deeply concerned" about reported forced labor in Xinjiang, turned to the wider international Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) based in Geneva

Last October, Better Cotton had said it was suspending cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-21 fashion season, also citing concerns over that region's human rights.

"If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we'll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China," one netizen replied Thursday.

BCI members include Nike, Germany-based Adidas and Japan's Fast Retailing.

EU sanctions on China end an 'illusion'


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China's government-aligned English language newspaper The Global Times also cited Burberry and New Balance as having made "cutting remarks" about Xinjiang cotton two years ago.

It also cited the brand Zara as having expressed a "zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor."

Xinjiang cotton made by forced laborers?

Many Chinese online users, observed Reuters, said they would instead support local Asian brands such as Li Ning and ANTA, prompting share price surges in Hong Kong.

ANTA, a Chinese shoe brand announced it was quitting BCI and would continue buying Xinjiang cotton — prompting a spike in its share prices on Hong Kong's Han Seng Index.

Social media posts also mentioned the Japanese and US brands Uniqlo and Gap but it was unclear whether the people posting messages were private citizens or government plants online.

China's People's Daily newspaper similarly began a social media campaign via the microblog Weibo, using a slogan translating as "I support Xinjiang cotton."

China's Xinjiang region: cotton production under slave labor conditions? Image: picture alliance / Photoshot

By Thursday morning, online searches for H&M stores on Chinese locator maps, including Baidu, no longer yielded results.

The retailer's e-commerce platform via Alibaba Tmall was inaccessible. H&M items were also missing from another online portal, JD.com, noted Associated Press.

A department store in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China, said via its website its in-house H&M section was shut.

It demanded that H&M apologize for "spreading rumors" and harming the region's interests.

Businesses caught up in broader tensions

H&M, responding to Chinese umbrage Wednesday said it respected Chinese consumers and was committed to long-term investment in China.

"How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then smash China's pot?" Chinese state television had asked in a commentary on Wednesday.

China denies foreign researchers' findings that more than 1 million people in Xinjiang, mainly ethnic Muslims, are been confirmed to work camps.

Beijing says its task is to stamp out radicalism and promote economic development.

China has been vocally critical in several fora since Monday's sanctions were unveiled.

ipj/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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