The Swedish firm H&M is facing a fierce boycott in China with its stores almost empty and its clothes missing from the big e-commerce platforms.
Adidas, Nike, Converse and Calvin Klein have lost their most famous representatives. Burberry has had a collaboration with one of the world’s largest video game companies canceled. And more punishments are on the way.
Since Wednesday, Western brands have become the target of Chinese consumer ire. Spurred on by the Communist Party and its media, citizens punish these companies for participating in the call not to use cotton from Xinjiang in their garments.
The region, home to the Muslim Uyghur minority, produces 87% of that material in China, and is the subject of controversy over several allegations that forced labor from Uyghurs and other minorities is used in its production and harvest.
In the case of H&M –520 stores and 1.4 billion dollars in sales in China in 2019–, the controversy comes from a statement last year in which it expressed its “concern” over the allegations of forced labor in the border province, a key territory in the billionaire New Silk Road sponsored by Beijing to improve trade with the rest of the world. A similar statement was made by Nike, which claimed not to use products from this region.
Despite his seniority, an account of the Young Communist League on Wednesday issued this statement. “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton and at the same time wanting to make money in China? Not even in dreams! ”They said on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
The spark ignited immediately. Since then, calls to boycott their products have intensified, their garments are no longer available on e-commerce platforms such as Taobao or JD.com and figures such as actor Wang Yibo or Huang Xuan, with millions of followers each, have given up being its ambassadors.
The timing of this campaign does not seem accidental. Two days ago, the European Union announced sanctions against China for violations of the rights of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, something that Beijing strongly denies.
The Chinese then responded with their own salvo of retaliation against ten Europeans and four institutions, a gesture that took Brussels by surprise.
It is not the first time that Beijing has used the power of its juicy domestic market to punish foreign brands for “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”, a situation that Zara and Dolce & Gabanna have gone through in recent years, for different reasons. The same has happened to Marriot and the National Basketball Association, which recently bent the knee to Beijing.
Most firms have solved their shaming by offering public apologies and rectifying their supposed error, although this is not always a guarantee that they will recover their business operations.
In addition to the videos and articles in state media promoting “white gold” and the labels on social networks promulgating “I support Xinjiang cotton”, yesterday, statements were added by the spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce, Gao Feng, who criticized these companies for making decisions “based on false information”.
“We hope that firms respect the laws of the market, correct their erroneous practices and avoid politicizing trade issues,” he added.
While the aforementioned companies registered significant falls in the stock market, other Chinese companies in the sector such as Anta or Li Ning, who also publicly defended their native cotton, reported substantial increases.