After H&M, Nike, more foreign retail brands under fire in China over Xinjiang

Topics around the Nike statement were among the highest trending on China's Weibo on March 25, 2021.
Topics around the Nike statement were among the highest trending on China's Weibo on March 25, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - More foreign retail brands came under criticism from social media in China on Thursday (March 25), in the wake of Beijing’s propaganda offensive against H&M over the Swedish company’s previously aired concerns on Xinjiang.

Earlier this week, China denied allegations of human rights abuses by its officials in the western region of Xinjiang after the European Union, United States, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on the officials. Beijing hit back with retaliatory sanctions on European lawmakers, academics and institutions.

Chinese state media singled out H&M on Wednesday for a statement that was reported by media last year in which the Swedish retailer said it was deeply concerned by reports of accusations of forced labour in Xinjiang, and that it did not source products from the Chinese region. It was not clear why the H&M statement was back in the public eye.

A social media frenzy ignited by a government call to stop foreign brands from tainting China’s name sent Internet users looking for other previously issued statements by foreign retailers on Xinjiang.

Nike, which said earlier in an undated statement it was concerned about reports of forced labour, came under fire. And so did German sportswear firm Adidas.

Many Internet users said they will stop buying Nike and will support local brands such as Li Ning and Anta, while others bluntly told Adidas to leave China.

Chinese state tabloid Global Times reported that Inditex , owner of Zara, had “quietly removed” a statement on Xinjiang cotton from its English and Spanish-language websites on Thursday.

Inditex did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Internet users also targeted the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global group that promotes sustainable cotton production which had said in October it was suspending its approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-2021 season, citing concerns over human rights.

China produces over a fifth of the world’s cotton, with Xinjiang accounting for about 87 per cent of Chinese output.

“If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China,” one Internet user wrote.

BCI members include Nike, Adidas, H&M, and Japan’s Fast Retailing.

Nike, Adidas and the BCI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In response to the furore, H&M said on Wednesday it respected Chinese consumers and that it was committed to long-term investment and development in China.

But by Thursday morning, H&M did not exist on some Chinese store locator maps. Searches for H&M stores on Baidu Maps yielded no results. The Swedish clothing retailer’s official store on Alibaba’s Tmall, an e-commerce platform, was inaccessible.

At a daily media briefing at the Chinese foreign ministry, spokeswoman Hua Chunying, when asked about H&M, held up a photograph of Black Americans picking cotton. 

“This was in the US when Black slaves were forced to pick cotton in the fields,” she said. 

Hua then held up a second photograph of cotton fields in Xinjiang.  “More than 40 per cent of the cotton in Xinjiang is harvested by machinery, so the alleged forced labour is non-existent.”

Overnight, People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, rolled out a social media campaign in support of cotton sourced from Xinjiang. The graphic, “I support Xinjiang cotton” posted by the newspaper on the Twitter-like microblog Weibo has since attracted about 2.2 million likes.

Minimalist lifestyle brand Muji, owned by Ryohin Keikaku, told Global Times on Thursday it is a user of Xinjiang cotton, winning praise from Chinese Internet users, who lauded the firm’s survival instincts.