West 'trying to destabilise China' with its Xinjiang actions

Xinjiang government spokesman Xu Guixiang has criticised the actions of Western companies.
Xinjiang government spokesman Xu Guixiang has criticised the actions of Western companies.

BEIJING • The US, Britain, the EU and Canada have engaged in political manipulation to destabilise China, a spokesman for the regional government of Xinjiang said yesterday.

Mr Xu Guixiang made the remarks during a press briefing while rejecting accusations of genocide being committed in the western Chinese region and the sanctions announced by the Western governments over allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Mr Xu also said that Sweden's H&M and other foreign companies should not make rash moves or step into politics after the companies raised concerns about forced labour in Xinjiang, sparking a furious online backlash and boycotts.

H&M, Burberry, Nike and Adidas and other Western brands have been hit by consumer boycotts in China since last week over comments about their sourcing of cotton in Xinjiang.

China's response to H&M is far stronger than its previous pushback when foreign brands crossed political lines, and the Swedish retailer is at risk of becoming a corporate casualty of Beijing's heightened sensitivity towards criticism from Western governments and entities. The company appears to have suffered the brunt of the fallout, having been called out by the Communist Youth League and the People's Liberation Army.

H&M stores in some parts of China are being closed by their landlords, threatening to disrupt the clothing giant's growth. China accounted for 5.2 per cent of H&M's total sales in 2020, the fourth-biggest country market after Germany, the United States and Britain.

The company had 505 stores in China as of Nov 30.

At least six stores in the lower-tier cities of Urumqi, Yinchuan, Changchun and Lianyungang have been closed by the owners of the properties, mall operators in those areas told Bloomberg.

Local media reported more closures, with pictures showing H&M's brand billboards being removed. Its outlets have also vanished on Apple Maps and Baidu Maps searches, making it hard for Chinese consumers to locate stores, and it has been removed from Chinese e-commerce platforms.

The closures are the latest escalation in the backlash against an undated H&M statement on its website that expressed concern about reports of forced labour in the far west Xinjiang region, a major producer of cotton used in the global apparel supply chain.

"I don't think a company should politicise its economic behaviour," said Mr Xu at a news conference.

"Can H&M continue to make money in the Chinese market? Not any more. To rush into this decision and get involved in the sanctions is not reasonable. It's like lifting a stone to drop it on one's own feet," he said.

The US last Friday accused China of a state-run "corporate and consumer boycott" against companies that refuse to use cotton from Xinjiang.

Other global brands are facing a similar dilemma over whether to keep using cotton from the Xinjiang region or risk being boycotted in the world's second-biggest economy.

German brand Hugo Boss' actions reflect the growing pressure on both sides of the issue: it initially appeared to appease Chinese concerns, posting on its Weibo account last week that it would "continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton".

That comment was unauthorised and has now been deleted, a spokesman from Hugo Boss said in an e-mailed statement.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2021, with the headline 'West 'trying to destabilise China' with its Xinjiang actions'. Subscribe