Updated: March 30, 2021 7:50:30 am
Over the last week, at least 40 high profile Chinese celebrities cancelled lucrative sponsorship contracts and brand partnerships with a number of foreign-owned clothing brands, including H&M and Nike, over Western allegations of forced labour and human rights violations by Chinese authorities in the contentious Xinjiang region.
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Since then, China’s top ride-hailing apps have dropped Swedish fashion label H&M from its listings, and the company’s products disappeared overnight from major Chinese e-commerce platforms like Alibaba and JD.com, AP reported. The brand’s smartphone app went missing from app stores soon after.
Chinese tech giant Tencent even went as far as removing costumes designed by Burberry, another brand caught up in the conflict, from a popular mobile phone game. Many Chinese shoppers have since called for these brands to be boycotted.
How did these foreign brands find themselves in this situation?
The latest controversy arose earlier this week when the ruling Communist Party’s youth wing, the Communist Youth League, shared an old statement from H&M on the Chinese social networking platform Weibo, in which the company said it was “deeply concerned” following reports of forced labour in the production of cotton in Xinjiang. In the post, which was shared in September last year, the company stated that it would stop buying cotton from growers in the region.
“Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton while trying to make a profit in China? Wishful thinking!” the Communist Youth League wrote on Weibo. Soon after, Chinese actor Huang Xuan and actress-singer Song Qian, a former member of Korean pop band f(x), announced that they were cutting ties with the brand.
China is H&M’s third-largest market in the world, after Germany and the United States. In 2019, the last year for which annual figures have been reported, the fashion label had 520 stores and $1.4 billion in sales in China.
The Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times also criticised statements made by other brands like Nike, Adidas, Burberry and New Balance about the situation in Xinjiang. “For enterprises that touch the bottom line of our country, the response is very clear: don’t buy!” China Central Television said on its social media account.
Social media users were able to unearth an older statement by Nike in which the sportswear brand said it was “concerned about reports of forced labour in, and connected to, Xinjiang.” Brand ambassador Wang Yibo eventually announced that he was ending his contract with the company.
In fact, the response on Chinese social media was so widespread and unprecedented that March 25, the day the Communist Youth League shared the post about H&M, has been dubbed “contract termination day” within the Chinese entertainment industry, CNN reported.
Scores of celebrities joined the movement against Western fashion labels, sharing posts with the hashtag ‘I support Xinjiang’s cotton’. More than 30 renowned Chinese celebrities, including Wang Yibo, Jackson Wang, Zhang Yixing and Dilireba from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, have joined the boycott.
Xinjiang and cotton
Around 87 per cent of all the material produced in China is made out of cotton obtained in Xinjiang, the New York Times reported. This means that around one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the region.
In January, the Trump administration announced an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang due to allegations of forced labour and other human rights violations against Uighur Muslims. The Biden administration did not attempt to reverse the ban when it came to power earlier this year.
But why now?
Despite the fact that several of the social media posts by foreign fashion labels that surfaced this week were originally shared a year or more ago, the companies faced backlash like never before. So, why now? The Chinese government’s campaign against these brands started just days after the United States and a few other Western countries imposed fresh sanctions on the country this week. The sanctions were meant to punish the country for carrying out serious human rights violations against Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. China has consistently denied these claims.
As per media reports, Chinese authorities have detained Uighurs at camps in Xinjiang, where they allegedly face torture, forced labour and sexual abuse.
What were the sanctions imposed by the US and other western countries?
The sanctions were imposed by the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada and targeted senior officials in the Xinjiang region. The affected officials were all accused of serious human rights violations against Uighur Muslims.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China was committing “genocide and crimes against humanity”. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the treatment of Uighurs “appalling violations of basic human rights”.
“I think it’s clear that by acting with our partners – 30 of us in total – we are sending the clearest message to the Chinese government, that the international community will not turn a blind eye to such serious and systematic violations of basic human rights and that we will act in concert to hold those responsible to account,” Raab said in parliament.
Meanwhile, Canada’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “Mounting evidence points to systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities.”
How did China respond?
In response, China imposed its own sanctions on British organisations and individuals. It claimed that they were “based on nothing but lies and disinformation”.
“China is firmly determined to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests, and warns the UK side not to go further down the wrong path,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, according to Reuters. “Otherwise, China will resolutely make further reactions.”
Is this the first time brands have been boycotted in China?
No, this is not the first time foreign brands have faced backlash in China. When South Korea adopted an American anti-missile defence system years ago, the Chinese government enabled anti-South Korean sentiment in the country. As a result, Lotte Mart, a popular South Korean supermarket, was forced to shut several of its outlets.
In yet another instance in 2019, luxury fashion labels Givenchy, Coach and Versace were accused of undermining China’s sovereignty by selling T-shirts that listed Hong Kong and Macau — China’s special administrative regions — as autonomous countries. Several Chinese celebrities cut ties with the brands as a result.
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