Fashion retailer H&M faces a possible boycott in China after a statement by the company last year expressing deep concern over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang sparked a social media storm this week.
A similar statement by Nike was also criticized on Wednesday, a sign that Western apparel manufacturers in China may face growing hostility over their public stance against forced labor in Xinjiang and the cessation of cotton sourcing from the region.
The H&M statement, which can be found on the Swedish retailer’s website, was released in September after global control over the use of Uyghurs in forced labor in Xinjiang increased.
In it, H&M said it is “deeply concerned about reports from civil society organizations and media containing allegations of forced labor and discrimination against ethnic-religious minorities” in Xinjiang and that it has stopped buying cotton from producers in the region.
More than eight months later, following Western countries sanctions China for treating Uyghurs, H&M is facing online backlash from Chinese consumers. The outrage was fueled by comments on platforms such as the microblogging site Sina Weibo from celebrities and groups such as the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.
“Would you like to make money in China while spreading false rumors and boycotting Xinjiang cotton? Wishful thinking! “Said the group in a contribution, repeating one of the statements of the People’s Liberation Army, in which the attitude of H & M was described as” ignorant and arrogant “.
On Monday, the UK, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced an escalating series of sanctions against Chinese officials for treating Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold worldwide contains cotton or yarn from the region where the authorities have implemented forced labor programs and mass internment to turn up to a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities into model workers who obey the Communist Party.
Nike could be next. The company posted a statement on its website expressing concerns about “Reports of Forced Labor in and Related to” Xinjiang. “Nike does not source any products” from the region and “we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they do not use any textiles or spun yarn from the region.”
On Wednesday, Nike was at the top of Weibo’s “Hot Search” list. Some users were angry that Nike had joined the boycott of cotton from the area. The company declined to comment.
Huang Xuan, a Chinese actor who had a men’s clothing deal with H&M, issued a statement saying he would cancel the deal, adding that he opposed “defamation and rumors” as well as “any attempt at that To discredit land “. Singer and actress Victoria Song, who previously supported H&M, also released a statement saying she has no relationship with the brand and that “national interests are paramount”.
By Wednesday evening, at least three major Chinese e-commerce platforms – Pinduoduo, Jingdong and Tmall – had removed H&M from search results and taken their products off sale. The measures underscored the pressures from foreign companies doing business in China as they navigate political and cultural debates such as the country’s sovereignty and its checkered human rights record.
On Wednesday evening, H&M China responded by posting on the Sina Weibo microblogging website that the company “does not take a political position”.
“The H&M Group respects Chinese consumers as always,” the statement said. “We are determined to invest in China in the long term and to develop further.”
H&M is the second largest fashion retailer in the world after Inditex, the owner of Zara, and China is the fourth largest market.
State broadcaster CCTV criticized H&M, saying it was “a misconception to try to play a righteous hero”. H&M, it said, “will definitely pay a heavy price for its wrongdoing.”
Claire Fu contributed to the research.