China launched a nationalist boycott campaign against foreign brands for their statements on forced labour used in the cotton production supply chain in Xinjiang on 24 March.
On 22 March, the European Union imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials for their involvement in human rights violations in Xinjiang. Europe’s decision to impose sanctions for the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was likely the reason for China’s nationalist boycott campaign.
Shop is closed
The Communist Party of China’s Communist Youth League launched an attack on H&M and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) with a Weibo post. The BCI is an international non-profit that seeks to bring more transparency to the cotton production supply chain. The Xinjiang region alone produces more than 20 per cent of the world’s cotton. China and the cotton from Xinjiang are critical elements of the global clothing supply chain.
“Ridiculous belief that it can spread rumors and boycott cotton from Xinjiang while trying to make money in China,” said the Communist Youth League’s Weibo post. The Weibo post has been viewed over 29.2 million times and received 16.7 thousand comments.
The reporting on Uyghur labour camps in Xinjiang and their ties to the clothing supply chain isn’t new. Reports have continued to emerge about systematic use of forced labour to produce apparel – among other items – for international brands.
H&M stores were removed from Apple Maps and some other geospatial platforms in China. China’s telecommunications company Huawei removed Nike and Adidas apps from their app store. Six H&M stores in China were closed by the owners of the property, according to Bloomberg. The hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” was viewed 7.25 billion times on Weibo. Chinese e-commerce stores such as Alibaba, Taobao and JD.COM took H&M, Nike, Adidas and other brand’s merchandise off from their online store. Brands such as Adidas, Calvin Klein, Uniqlo and Converse lost their brand ambassadors over the controversy. Some fans in Hong Kong criticised Canto-pop singer Eason Chan for severing ties with Adidas over Xinjiang cotton.
The statements issued by H&M and Better Cotton Initiative against using Xinjiang cotton were actually from 2020. The curious timing of the ban now suggests the boycott campaign was coordinated at various levels to send a message to Western countries for their recent sanctions on Xinjiang.
Backlash and discounts
“The Chinese people do not allow some foreign companies to eat Chinese food and smash Chinese bowls,” said Hua Chunying, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, while responding to a question about the H&M controversy.
China knows that any retaliatory sanctions against Western politicians will not work because of the limited reach of its financial institution. Targeting brands would be a more effective way to send a signal to Europe and other countries.
In 2019, China targeted NBA team Houston Rockets’ manager Daryl Morey for his tweets in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Darl Morley had to delete the tweet and apologise for his comments. Following that, the broadcast of NBA games was banned in China for almost a year and only resumed in October 2020.
Unlike the 2019 Hong Kong protest boycott, this time around, the nationalist backlash is far more expansive and coordinated. International brands were aware of the pitfalls ahead if they pushed China to address the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang because of their experience during the Hong Kong protests.
“Increasing media and academic attention on geopolitical issues, including the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang area of China, has further demonstrated that production location and sustainability are crucially interlinked,” a statement by the BCI said on 18 December 2020.
“As of October 2020, BCI has formally ceased all operations (including reassurance and capacity building work) in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Western China,” a report by BCI added.
China may have control over narrative building on social media, but it wouldn’t be able to control consumer behaviour over the long haul.
According to a recent survey of 7,284 people conducted by Hupu, a Chinese social media platform, 45 per cent said that they will still buy Nike sneakers if the price were to drop by half. About 38 per cent said they will boycott the brand regardless of the price.
Some Chinese social media users have said that people should support the people of Xinjiang instead of “supporting Xinjiang cotton”.
China’s cancel culture
Meanwhile, China continues to see grand conspiracies against their economic prosperity everywhere.
“The sanctions are simultaneously aimed at making China economically a loser and Xinjiang’s people jobless, pushing the region back into turmoil. The Western countries want to turn the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into a failure by destabilizing Xinjiang, which is at the heart of the initiative,” said an article in People’s Daily.
“You can’t just assume that the Chinese government is behind it just because you see some remarks on the internet that you don’t like or don’t want to hear. This is a serious misunderstanding and bias against China,” said Hua Chunying on Tuesday.
Foreign companies operating in China have always had to adopt a certain degree of myopia on issues of human rights and democracy. But China’s growing integration into international commerce has meant that foreign companies can’t pretend to wear their myopia as a badge of honour.
The recent crisis shows that foreign companies can’t simply wish away issues of human rights violations as a ‘cost of doing business in China’.
China’s coercive ‘cancel culture’ strategy towards foreign brands is fast losing customers around the world.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.
Edited by Neera Majumdar