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Many Western brands face boycotts in China after H&M backlash

(ATF) At least a dozen more Western fashion brands are facing boycotts in China after H&M was targeted last week in a public backlash over its 2020 pledge not to use cotton from the Xinjiang region.

Meanwhile, analysts said China’s domestic market is large enough to absorb all of Xinjiang’s cotton output, and they expect local brands such as Li Ning and Anta could take over market shares from brands facing boycotts.

After Alibaba’s Tmall removed H&M’s online store from its platform, and local app stores blocked H&M apps, shopping mall operators in many regions are forcing H&M to close its brick-and-mortar stores. 

Shopping malls in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Chengdu in Sichuan province, Harbin in Heilongjiang province, Jinan and Qingdao in Shandong province, and Zhengzhou in Henan province have forced H&M to close the stores, according to local media.

On Monday, Nike and Adidas apps were temporarily blocked on Huawei, Xiaomi, Vivo, and OPPO’s China app stores. On the Huawei app store, the “Install” buttons for both apps have been disabled with a message that reads “Sorry, but the app is not available at the time due to service adjustment.”

Meanwhile, Nike’s “Let trash do the talk” banner ad has been removed from JD.com because Chinese users has found the slogan to be provocative. Nike introduced the slogan last month for “Cosmic Unity”, its first sustainable basketball shoe under a zero waste initiative. 

An announcement made by an H&M spokesperson a year ago sparked a furious backlash on social media in China last week and led to boycotts, however, Western governments have claimed it was orchestrated by Beijing. 

H&M said in a statement last March it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of forced labour and discrimination” and that it did not source products from Xinjiang. 

It was unclear why the year-old H&M statement was back in the public eye, but the sudden targeting comes as tensions escalate between China and Western nations.

The European Union, United States, Britain and Canada last Monday imposed coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials accusing them of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China retaliated with sanctions on European lawmakers, scholars, and institutions.

Activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisation of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. China denies the accusations – it says it provides vocational training and that its measures are needed to fight extremism. 

A social media frenzy ignited by a government call to stop foreign brands from tainting China’s name prompted internet users to search for other previously issued statements on Xinjiang by foreign retailers.

Brands that could be face boycotts 

Over a dozen foreign fashion brands, mostly American and European, are facing boycotts in China over pledges not to use cotton from the Xinjiang region. They are, in alphabetical order:

# Adidas

# Bestseller (Only, Vero Moda, Jack&Jones, Selected)

# Burberry

# Calvin Klein

# Converse

# Gap

# H&M

# Lacoste

# New Balance

# Nike

# Tommy Hilfiger

# Under Armour

# Uniqlo

# Zara

Companies should avoid political issues, China warns

Chinese officials said on Monday that foreign companies caught up in concerns about forced labour in Xinjiang should avoid political controversies. They said foreign companies should not make rash moves or step into politics after H&M and other companies raised concern about forced labour in Xinjiang.

“I don’t think a company should politicize its economic behaviour,” said Xu Guixiang, a Xinjiang government spokesman at a news conference on Monday morning. “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 was quoted as saying. 

Elijan Anayat, another Xinjiang government spokesman, said during the briefing that Chinese people do not want the products of companies such as H&M and Nike that have boycotted cotton from Xinjiang. He said he welcomed companies to take trips to the region’s cotton fields to see for themselves what is happening.

Washington on Friday condemned what it called a “state-led” social media campaign in China against US and other international companies for committing not to use cotton from Xinjiang. The US government has publicly accused Beijing of genocide against the Uighur Muslim minority in the region. 

Xu repeatedly rejected accusations of genocide and rights abuses in the region and accused the Western powers of engaging in political manipulation to destabilise China with the sanctions. “They have lost their minds and their conscience, they are enthusiastic about political manipulation and the abuse of sanctions, to a level that is hysterical,” he said.

‘China can take Xinjiang cotton’ 

Xinjiang accounts for 87% of China’s cotton production, and about 62% of China’s cotton consumption, according to the research by Zheshang Securities. Even if China loses apparel orders from the US and Europe because of Xinjiang cotton worries, the domestic market is large enough to consume cottons produced in Xinjiang, it said.

The investment bank expects Chinese brands such as Li Ning and Anta to take over Nike’s and Adidas’ market share in China, and said local brands like Semir and HLA Inc will be strong contenders to Uniqlo and Bestseller.

Internet users also targeted the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), to which most of these brands are members. A global group that promotes sustainable cotton production, BCI said in October it was suspending its approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-2021 season, citing concerns over human rights.

However, BCI’s China office last week said it has not found any case of “forced labour” in Xinjiang in the last eight years. 

Wu Yan, chief representative of BCI’s Shanghai office told China Global Television Network that the BCI Shanghai office carried out strict review of projects in Xinjiang and gave the headquarters its own investigation reports as well reports from third-party inspection company SGS. 

The BCI headquarters ignored the reports and moved forward to reject Xinjiang cotton, Wu said.

Repercussions from the row are still continuing. Chinese celebrities are racing to distance themselves from western brands that have pledged not to use cotton from the Xinjiang region. 

Actor Huang Xuan and singer Victoria Song, whom H&M had previously signed as brand ambassadors in the country, cut ties with the Swedish brand, while pop star Wang Yibo and actress Tan Songyun announced they were terminating their collaboration with Nike.

The award-winning actor Zhou Dongyu has also ended her “brand ambassador” role with Burberry, as Tencent removed Burberry items of clothing from its video game Honor of Kings, and a Hong Kong lawmaker shared a widely mocked photograph of herself staring mournfully at a trio of scarves she promised not to wear again. 

Adidas, meanwhile, was ditched by the singers Eason Chan and Angelababy of Hong Kong. And Uniqlo has lost the actors Ni Ni and Jing Boran, while Puma was abandoned by Gulnazar, a Uighur actor. 

What next? Solar products?

The forced labour claims are not only about cotton. In January, the United States also announced an import ban on tomato products from the area due to the alleged abuse of “over a million” detained Uighur Muslims. And a third product could also be on the chopping block.  

Reuters reported earlier this month that the leader of the AFL-CIO, the largest US labour federation, is calling on the Biden administration and Congress to stop imports of solar products from China’s Xinjiang region over human rights concerns. 

“The Biden administration and Congress must act to block imports of solar products that contain polysilicon made with forced labor,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, dated March 12.

It is estimated that 50% of the world’s polysilicon production is now sourced from Xinjiang.

Some analysts are already tipping that solar panels made with polysilicon from the Uighur Region will be the next products to face a ban in the west. 

With reporting by Reuters

NOTE: THIS STORY WAS UPDATED WITH ADDITIONAL CONTENT LATE ON MARCH 29.

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