China warns brands not to engage in politics over abuse reports

Chinese officials said H&M and other foreign companies should not get caught up in politics after they raised concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang. Western governments imposed sanctions on China last week, and now Chinese consumers are boycotting the brands.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Shoppers wearing masks pass by an H&M store in Beijing, March 29, 2021. China stepped up pressure Monday on foreign companies to reject reports of abuses in Xinjiang, telling them to look more closely and pointing to a statement by one that it found no forced labor.

Chinese officials on Monday said Sweden’s H&M and other foreign companies should not make rash moves or step into politics after the companies raised concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang, sparking a furious online backlash and boycotts.

H&M, Burberry, Nike, Adidas, and other Western brands have been hit by consumer boycotts in China since last week over comments about their sourcing of cotton in Xinjiang. The growing rift comes as the United States and other Western governments increase pressure on China over suspected human rights abuses in the region.

“I don’t think a company should politicize its economic behavior,” 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 anymore.”

“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 said.

H&M did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the Associated Press, the social media attacks began when the ruling party’s Youth League last week began circulating a 2020 statement by H&M announcing it would no longer source cotton from Xinjiang. State television called for a boycott of the Swedish retailer. Official media have criticized Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo, and Burberry for expressing concern about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang.

H&M said at the time the decision was due to difficulties conducting credible due diligence in the region and after media and human rights groups reported the use of forced labor in Xinjiang – a charge that Beijing has repeatedly denied.

Elijan Anayat, another Xinjiang government spokesman, said during the briefing that Chinese people did not want the products of companies such as H&M and Nike that have boycotted Xinjiang‘s cotton. He said he would welcome companies taking trips to the region’s cotton fields to see them for themselves.

Western sanctions

Washington on Friday condemned what it called a state-led social media campaign in China against U.S. and other international companies for committing not to use cotton from Xinjiang.

H&M goods have disappeared from major Chinese e-commerce platforms but on Monday the other brands still were available. The smartphone apps for H&M, Adidas, and Nike were missing Monday from major Chinese app stores.

The Communist Party often pressures foreign clothing, travel, and other brands over actions by their governments or to compel them to adopt its position on Taiwan, Tibet, and other sensitive issues. Most comply because China is one of the biggest, fastest-growing markets for global fashion, electronics, and other consumer brands.

The wave of consumer boycotts in China has coincided with a coordinated set of sanctions imposed by Britain, Canada, the European Union, and the U.S. last week over what they say are human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang. The U.S. government has publicly accused Beijing of genocide against the Uyghur Muslim ethnic minorities in the region.

The Associated Press reports that more than 1 million members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been confined to camps in Xinjiang in China’s northwest, according to foreign governments and researchers. Authorities there are accused of imposing forced labor and coercive birth control measures.

Mr. Xu repeatedly rejected accusations of genocide and human rights abuses in the region and accused the Western powers of engaging in political manipulation to destabilize 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,” said Mr. Xu.

Mr. Anayat said: “Their real purpose by fabricating the issue of genocide is to disrupt security and stability in China.”

The U.S. in January announced an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from the area due to allegations of forced labor from detained Uyghur Muslims.

China has repeatedly denied all such charges and say the camps are for vocational training and combating religious extremism.

This story was reported by Reuters, with additional information from The Associated Press.

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