Global brands H&M and Nike are facing a backlash from Chinese state media and online retailers over historic statements of concern about forced labour in the country’s western Xinjiang region, as a round of sanctions stoked tensions between Beijing and western powers.
On Thursday, searches for clothing made by Sweden’s H&M turned up no results on Alibaba’s T-mall and JD.com, China’s two biggest online retailers. The apparent halt came after China’s Communist Youth League accused H&M of “boycotting” Xinjiang cotton. It pointed to a company statement from last year that said H&M was “deeply concerned” about reports of forced labour in the western Chinese region, where officials have been accused of human rights abuses.
H&M’s 2020 statement, which was inaccessible on Thursday, said it did not source directly from Xinjiang and would end its relationship with Huafu Fashion, a group that operates in the region.
Searches for H&M’s physical shops on China’s leading map apps Baidu and Gaode also turned up no results on Thursday.
China’s Ministry of Commerce told reporters during a press conference on Thursday that “it would not tolerate any effort to sully the reputation of flawless, pure white Xinjiang cotton” and called accusations of forced labour “imaginary”.
Alibaba, JD.com and Baidu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A separate, months-old statement from Nike that expressed concerns about reports of forced labour in Xinjiang and said the company did not source directly from the region was circulated by Chinese state media on Wednesday. It sparked anger on Chinese social media and from the US group’s local commercial partners.
Wang Yibo, a Chinese pop star and a brand ambassador for Nike, said he was cutting ties with the sportswear maker. His employer, Yuehua Entertainment, said in a statement that Wang “firmly resists any words or actions that smear China”.
At the same time as stoking boycotts, Beijing has called on consumers to “support Xinjiang cotton”.
China expects a 1.85m tonne deficit of cotton supply for this year and “Xinjiang’s cotton isn’t even enough for us to use”, state media quipped.
Western apparel brands have faced pressure from human rights groups to cease sourcing cotton, textiles or yarn from suppliers in Xinjiang, which produces more than 85 per cent of China’s raw cotton.
H&M said on Wednesday via its official Weibo account that it required all of its global suppliers to meet responsible business standards. The Swedish retailer added that its approach to suppliers was not a political stance and the group did not directly buy cotton anywhere in the world. “We are committed to long term investment and development in China,” it said.
The backlash against H&M and Nike coincided with Beijing’s angry reaction to co-ordinated sanctions from the EU, US, UK and Canada this week over Xinjiang.
China’s foreign ministry, which denies human rights abuses in Xinjiang, immediately retaliated with sanctions against EU groups and parliamentarians after the bloc targeted officials in the region with ties to a system of extralegal “re-education” camps. The tensions have threatened to scupper Brussels’ ratification of a hard-fought EU-China market access deal.
Allison Gill, a US-based campaigner with Global Labor Justice International Labor Rights Forum, said the backlash against H&M and Nike appeared to be an attempt by Beijing to shift the narrative away from international scrutiny of China’s security clampdown and forced labour in Xinjiang.
“It cannot be coincidental that today they drudge up a fairly standard due-diligence statement from months before,” she said of the attacks on H&M.
Multinational companies have been forced to walk a tightrope to ensure they are not complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang while avoiding Beijing’s ire.
Disney last year faced an outcry after it thanked a branch of the Xinjiang police in the credits of its live-action Mulan remake for allowing 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 apparel brands.
In the quarter that ended in February, Nike-branded goods sold in the Greater China region brought in $973m in pre-tax earnings — a 75 per cent year-on-year jump — compared with $970m in North America.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing