Retail giants Nike and H&M raised concerns about unethical cotton sourcing months ago, but their statements then did not provoke Chinese consumers. After a new wave of sanctions issued by the United States, the European Union, and other Western countries on March 22 on allegations of forced labor and human rights violations by the Chinese government in Xinjiang, however, Chinese netizens erupted in indignation and called on their compatriots to boycott these brands.
The Xinjiang autonomous region in northwest China produces about a fifth of the world’s cotton. Though recognized as an autonomous region with theoretical legislative self-government, it has experienced tightening control from China’s central government. In the past, tensions between the Uyghur Muslim minority living in Xinjiang and the Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, have erupted into deadly violence, prompting the government’s crackdown in Xinjiang.
China has detained approximately one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities at camps, where they allegedly face torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor. China has repeatedly denied these allegations, calling the camps “re-education” facilities and necessary measures for combating poverty and religious extremism.
After Western media published reports that connected forced labor facilities in Xinjiang to brand name clothing companies’ supply chains, many brands, including Adidas, Lacoste, and H&M, have reassessed and banned cotton from Xinjiang. Similarly, the Trump administration banned all imports of cotton from Xinjiang in January and officially called China’s treatment of the Uyghurs “genocide”. In response to the West’s toughening stance and recent sanctions on two Chinese officials for “serious human rights abuses” against Uyghur Muslims, China countered with retaliatory sanctions against 10 EU politicians and four government entities for “maliciously spreading lies and disinformation.”
With China’s renewed pushback on Western allegations, the foreign companies became convenient targets. After a post of H&M’s statement about Xinjiang cotton from September emerged on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the public flared into outrage almost immediately. Other microblogging comments, such as a viral post by China’s Communist Youth League, continued to stoke public anger. “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton while trying to make a profit in China? Wishful thinking!” the organization wrote. The hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” trended at more than four billion views, while H&M faced a barrage of criticism from furious Chinese netizens. Within hours, many other foreign brands trended as well, facing similar backlash. Amid calls for boycott, all H&M products have been removed from popular Chinese e-commerce platforms, including Alibaba Group’s Tmall, Pinduoduo, and JD.com. The Chinese government has voiced its support for the public backlash and subsequent boycott. Simultaneously, the state-controlled newspaper People’s Daily condemned the Swedish retailer for believing in “lies spread by a few people,” rather than the “voices of billions of Chinese people.”
Since then, at least 40 high-profile celebrities and influencers have joined the boycott. Praised by state media, celebrities such as Xuan Huang, Jackson Wang, Eason Chan, and Dilireba—who herself is from Xinjiang—have canceled sponsorship contracts and brand collaborations with foreign fashion labels. The backlash has even spread to internet culture. Honor of Kings, an extremely popular mobile game in China with over 80 million daily players, has also ended its partnership with fashion retailer Burberry. Chinese influencers have a tremendous impact on consumer behavior, capable of substantiating labels and driving sales. However, being the target of such intense public attention, they have to be wary of politically sensitive topics and often cut ties with brands to publicly affirm national values. When Versace and Coach listed Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries on their websites in 2019, ambassadors Yang Mi and Liu Wen disassociated themselves with the respective brands immediately.
“Can H&M continue to make money in the Chinese market? Not anymore,” said Xu Guixiang, a Xinjiang government spokesperson. After Germany and the United States, China is H&M’s third-largest market globally with 520 stores and $1.4 billion in sales. In fact, a report from Bain & Company released last December predicts that China will be the world’s biggest luxury market by 2025. Hence, several brands, including VF. Corp., Inditex (owner of Zara), and PVH (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) have all quietly removed their Xinjiang cotton ban policies. Meanwhile, German company Hugo Boss and Japanese brands Muji and Uniqlo have announced support for Xinjiang cotton. As more than 20 Chinese brands voiced their proud support for Xinjiang cotton, the cotton ban may inadvertently provide Chinese fashion brands with an opportunity to gain more market share. For H&M, Nike, and other foreign companies, however, taking a stance against human rights abuse has clashed with seeking to maximize profit—sandwiched between China and the West’s game of political brinkmanship, they occupy a precarious position.