H&M faces boycott in China over Xinjiang cotton

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Fashion giant H&M is facing a boycott in China over its refusal to use Xinjiang cotton amid allegations of forced labour of the Uighur minority.

The Swedish retailer said last year it was “deeply concerned” by abuse reports there – a statement which resurfaced on social media, sparking outrage. Major e-commerce platforms have since dropped the firm, while two celebrities have cut ties with the company.

It comes as several Western countries imposed sanctions on China this week. The sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, target senior officials in the north-west region of Xinjiang who has been accused of serious human rights violations against Uighur Muslims.

How did H&M find itself here?

The furore appears to have been sparked by a social media post by the Communist Youth League, a Chinese Communist Party group. “Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” it said on microblogging platform Weibo on Wednesday morning, as it shared screenshots of the retailer’s statement from last year.

Later that evening, state broadcaster CCTV said in a statement that H&M had “miscalculated” in trying to be a “righteous hero”, and that it “must pay a heavy price for its wrong actions”. A Weibo post by Chinese state media CGTN shared a video showing the “reality” of cotton-picking in Xinjiang, which involved automation and quotes from a Uighur farmer saying that people “fought” to work there for high earnings.

By Wednesday night, at least three major Chinese e-commerce platforms – Pinduoduo, JD.com and Tmall – have withdrawn H&M products from sale, reports said. Chinese stars Huang Xuan and Victoria Song released statements that they have severed ties with the brand, with the latter noting that “the country’s interests are above all”.

Social media has seen a huge wave of backlash against the company, with numerous calls for people to boycott its products. “Maybe H&M is making up these stories about China because they can’t afford to use Xinjiang cotton, which is the best quality in the world. No wonder their products these days are so terrible,” one person commented.

Is H&M the only company being targeted?

The outrage does seem to be spreading beyond H&M, with the related hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” viewed more than 1.1bn times. Anger is also being lashed out at sportswear giant Nike for expressing similar concerns, with Chinese actor and singer Wang Yibo announced that he has severed ties with the sportswear giant on Thursday.

Uighurs have been detained at camps where allegations of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged. China has denied the allegations of abuse, claiming the camps are “re-education” facilities used to combat terrorism.

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