Global brands H&M and Nike face backlash from Chinese state media and online retailers over historic statements of concern over forced labor in western Xinjiang, amid a string of sanctions fueled tensions between Beijing and the Western powers.
Searches for clothing made by Sweden’s H&M on Thursday returned no results at Alibaba’s T-mall and JD.com, China’s two largest online retailers. The apparent shutdown came after the Chinese Communist Youth League accused H&M of “boycotting” cotton from Xinjiang. He pointed to a statement by the company last year that H&M was “deeply concerned” about reports of forced labor in the western region of China, where officials have visited. accused of human rights abuses.
H&M’s 2020 statement, which was inaccessible on Thursday, said it did not come directly from Xinjiang and that it end his relationship with Huafu Fashion, a group that operates in the region.
H & M’s physical stores searches for major Chinese map apps, Baidu and Gaode, also yielded no results on Thursday.
China’s Commerce Ministry told reporters at a press conference on Thursday that it “will not tolerate any effort to sully Xinjiang’s reputation for pure, crisp white cotton” and called the charges of forced labor “imaginary. “.
Alibaba, JD.com and Baidu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another, several months old declaration of Nike, which expressed concern over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang and said the company does not source supplies directly from the region, was broadcast by Chinese state media on Wednesday. This sparked anger on Chinese social media and among the US group’s local business partners.
Wang Yibo, a Chinese pop star and Nike brand ambassador, said he was severing ties with the sportswear maker. Her employer, Yuehua Entertainment, said in a statement that Wang “firmly resists any words or actions that smear China.”
At the same time as instigating the boycotts, Beijing called on consumers to “support Xinjiang cotton”.
China expects a cotton supply shortfall of 1.85 million tonnes this year and “cotton from Xinjiang is not even enough for us,” state media joked.
Western clothing brands have come under pressure from human rights groups to stop sourcing cotton, textiles or yarn from suppliers in Xinjiang, which produces more than 85 % of Chinese raw cotton.
H&M said through its official Weibo account on Wednesday that it requires all of its global suppliers to adhere to responsible business standards. The Swedish retailer added that its approach to suppliers was not a political position and that the group did not buy cotton directly anywhere in the world. “We are committed to investing and developing for the long term in China,” he said.
The backlash against H&M and Nike coincided with Beijing’s angry reaction to coordinated EU, US, UK and Canadian sanctions this week on Xinjiang.
Chinese Foreign Ministry, which immediately denies human rights violations in Xinjiang retaliated with sanctions against EU groups and parliamentarians after the bloc targeted officials in the region linked to a system of extralegal “re-education” camps. Tensions have threatened to sabotage Ratification by Brussels of a hard-fought market access agreement between the EU and China.
Allison Gill, a US-based activist with Global Labor Justice’s International Labor Rights Forum, said the backlash against H&M and Nike appeared to be an attempt by Beijing to hijack the narrative from the international review of China’s security crackdown and forced labor in Xinjiang.
“It cannot be a coincidence that today they are writing a fairly standard due diligence statement that is several months old,” she said of the attacks on H&M.
Multinational companies have been forced to walk a tightrope to ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang while avoiding Beijing’s wrath.
Last year, Disney faced a outcry after thanking a branch of the Xinjiang police in the credits for his live action Mulan remake to allow scenes to be shot in the region.
China’s rapid economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has also made it a rare bright spot for many clothing brands.
In the quarter that ended in February, Nike-branded products sold in the Greater China region reported $ 973 million in pre-tax profits – up 75% year-over-year – against $ 970 million in North America.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing