China attacks foreign footwear and clothing brands in Xinjiang

BEIJING (AP) – Chinese state TV on Thursday called for a boycott of H&M as Beijing attacked foreign brands of clothing and shoes after Western sanctions against Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.

The government’s Communist Party criticized H&M for saying in March 2020 that it would stop buying cotton from northwest China. The Swedish retailer joined other brands in expressing concern about reports of forced labor there.

The Global Times party newspaper also criticized statements by Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Zara on Xinjiang for two years now.

“For companies that achieve our country’s financial results, the answer is very clear: don’t buy!” China Central Television said in its social media account. It said that the H and M in the Swedish name meant Chinese words that meant lies and falsehood.

The attacks follow Monday’s decision by 27 countries in the European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada to impose financial and travel sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of abuses in Xinjiang.

More than 1 million people in Xinjiang, mostly from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have been confined to labor camps, according to researchers and foreign governments. Beijing denies having abused them and says it is trying to promote economic development and eradicate radicalism.

“The so-called existence of forced labor in the Xinjiang region is entirely fictitious,” said Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng. He urged foreign companies to “correct wrong practices”, but did not say what they are expected to do.

Celebrities like Wang Yibo, a popular singer and actor, announced that they were breaking sponsorship contracts with H&M and Nike.

H&M products were missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s TMall and News reports said they were removed due to public criticism of Xinjiang’s statement. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Beijing frequently attacks clothing, automobiles, travel and other foreign brands for actions by its governments or to pressure companies to conform to their official positions on Taiwan, Tibet and other sensitive issues.

Companies often apologize and switch websites or advertising to maintain access to China, one of the largest global markets. But Xinjiang is an extraordinarily thorny issue. Western brands face internal pressure to distance themselves from possible abuse.

The loss of sales in China, the only major economy where consumer spending has recovered above pre-pandemic levels, can be especially painful at a time when demand from the US and Europe is weak.

The H&M Group “does not represent any political point of view” and “respects Chinese consumers,” said the company in its social media account.

The company said it is negotiating with 350 Chinese manufacturers to make products that “comply with the principles of sustainable development”. H&M said that “it is committed to long-term investment and development in China”.

H&M had 520 stores and $ 1.4 billion in sales in China in 2019, the last year for which annual figures were released. China is the third largest market, after Germany and the United States.

The criticism began when the ruling party’s Youth League on Wednesday drew attention to H & M’s March statement in its social media account. He gave no indication as to why he highlighted the company or an explanation for citing an earlier statement.

“Spreading lies to boycott Xinjiang while you want to make money in China? Positive thinking, ”said the Youth League.

The Global Times said Burberry, Adidas, Nike and New Balance also made “sharp comments” about Xinjiang cotton. Another report from the Global Times cited what it said was a statement by Zara that it had a “zero-tolerance approach to forced labor”.

H&M’s statement last year cited a decision by Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes environmental and labor standards, to stop licensing Xinjiang cotton because it was “increasingly difficult” to track how it was produced. In September, H&M announced that it would stop working with a Chinese manufacturer who was accused of using forced labor in a unit not related to the Swedish brand.

In January, Washington imposed a ban on cotton imports from Xinjiang, a major supplier to clothing producers for Western markets.

China’s official outrage has focused on Europe, possibly because relations with the EU were friendly amid a grudge with Washington over trade disputes and accusations of Chinese espionage and technology theft.

Official criticism of H&M reflected the tone of complaint about being hurt by a friend.

“How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then break the pot in China?” state television said in a comment on Wednesday.

Comments on the Internet cited clothing brands Uniqlo, from Japan, and The Gap, from the United States, as other possible offenders. It was not clear how many of these accounts were members of the public and how many were administered by the ruling party’s vast propaganda apparatus.

Popstar Wang’s announcement that he was stepping down as Nike’s “brand ambassador” did not mention Xinjiang. He said he “firmly resists any words and actions that pollute China”.

Others, including singer and actress Song Qian, a former member of Korean pop group f (x) who is also known as Victoria Song, and actor Huang Xuan, who announced that he would end sponsorship contracts with H&M. Actress Tang Songyun said she was breaking ties with Nike.

Chinese sports shoe brand ANTA announced it was leaving BCI, the cotton industry group.