Chinese state media and netizens are championing local brands while targeting more Western retailers as the Xinjiang cotton backlash grows.
Western brands have come under fire for expressing concern about the alleged use of Uighur forced labor in cotton production in the north-west region. A campaign that started against H&M and Nike has widened to include Burberry, Adidas and Converse, among others. It began shortly after several Western countries imposed sanctions on China.
China is accused of committing serious human rights violations against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Beijing denies this, and has hit back with retaliatory sanctions on European lawmakers, scholars and institutions – with the latest imposed on UK entities and individuals on Friday. In December the BBC published an investigation based on new research showing China was forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities including Uighurs into manual labour in Xinjiang’s cotton fields.
China has now got other brands in its cross-hairs – but will this campaign actually work? In just 24 hours H&M has been all but erased from China’s digital world; you can’t buy its tops and dresses on the biggest online retail platforms, you can’t get a taxi to take you to one of its shops on the biggest ride hailing app.
The physical stores are still there and open – almost all of them – but in the sphere where China’s ruling Communist Party can coordinate most quickly, H&M has disappeared. Only sales figures and decisions from the firm’s Sweden HQ will accurately reveal the impact this campaign is having.
But previous efforts, targeting South Korea’s Lotte chain in particular, show how effective it can be. Lotte stores are no more here after it got caught up in a diplomatic row between Beijing and Seoul. The challenge for foreign brands has always been about how to sell your stuff to China’s 1.4 billion at the same time as satisfying your global customers’ growing demands to get your ethics right.
That’s become even more salient in the era of Xinjiang abuses. Some see it as simply Sales vs Ethics; they choose which side to come down on. Others try to find a way to achieve both. The Xinjiang cotton campaign began on Wednesday when Chinese state media outlets and netizens singled out H&M over a statement made last year, and soon expanded to include many other brands.
They have now called for boycotts of brands associated with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) – a non-profit group that promotes sustainable cotton production – whose members include Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Burberry, Puma, and Tommy Hilfiger.
BCI said in October it had suspended activities in Xinjiang as well as licensing of the region’s cotton, citing allegations and “increasing risks” of forced labour. “If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you,” one person commented on Weibo.
Top celebrities in China, including singer Eason Chan and movie stars Zhang Yixing and Bai Jingting, have since said they would sever ties with some of these brands. Chinese tech giant Tencent also halted its partnership with the British luxury brand Burberry, which had designed outfits for Honor Of Kings, one of China’s biggest video games.
Meanwhile, state media have highlighted a number of Chinese brands including Li Ning, Anta, Peak, and Meters/bonwe, with trending hashtags on Weibo praising the companies for specifically using Xinjiang cotton – Li Ning for instance lists this on its clothing tags. Social media users have called on consumers to support them, and Li Ning and Anta shares have since reportedly soared.
Anta, the world’s third biggest sportswear company, said on Weibo it was a member of BCI, but was pulling out of the initiative. “We have always bought and used cotton produced in China, including Xinjiang cotton, and in the future we will continue to do so,” it said. Japanese sportswear label Asics also pledged support for Xinjiang cotton, while Japanese retailer Muji – which at one point had marketed a “Xinjiang cotton” line of products- told the Global Times it was still selling such items in China..
What is Xinjiang and who are the Uighurs?
- Xinjiang, China’s biggest region, produces about a fifth of the world’s cotton. An autonomous region in theory, in reality it faces restrictions which have only increased in recent years
- Millions of China’s Uighurs, a Muslim minority that sees itself as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations, live in Xinjiang
- In recent decades, mass migration of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) to Xinjiang has fuelled tensions with Uighurs which has at points flared into deadly violence
- This has resulted in a massive security crackdown and an extensive state surveillance programme, which critics say violate Uighur human rights. China says such measures are necessary to combat separatism and terrorism
- Uighurs have been detained at camps where allegations of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged. China has denied these claims saying the camps are “re-education” facilities aimed at lifting Uighurs out of poverty