China lashes out at H&M, Nike over criticism of human rights abuses in Xinjiang

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China’s ruling Communist Party is lashing out at H&M and other clothing and footwear brands as it retaliates for Western sanctions imposed on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

The attacks began when the party’s Youth League on Wednesday called attention on its social media account to an H&M statement in March 2020 that it would stop buying cotton grown in Xinjiang. The Swedish retailer said it was “deeply concerned” about reports of forced labour there.

Read more: Canada hits Chinese officials with sanctions over ‘gross’ human rights violations in Xinjiang

On Thursday, a party newspaper, the Global Times, cited Burberry, Adidas, Nike and New Balance as having made “cutting remarks” about Xinjiang cotton as early as two years ago. Celebrities including Wang Yibo, a popular singer and actor, announced they were breaking endorsement contracts with H&M and Nike.

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

Companies usually apologize and change websites or advertising to maintain access to China’s populous market. But Xinjiang is an unusually thorny issue. Western brands face pressure at home to distance themselves from possible abuses.

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More than one million people in Xinjiang, most of them from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups including Uighurs, have been confined to work camps, according to foreign researchers and governments. Beijing denies mistreating them and says it is trying to promote economic development and stamp out radicalism.

On Monday, the 27-nation European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada jointly announced travel and financial sanctions on four senior Chinese officials blamed for abuses in Xinjiang.

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Beijing retaliated by saying it would impose unspecified penalties against European legislators and a German researchers who has publicized information about the detention camps.

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H&M’s statement last March cited a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes environmental and labour standards, to stop licensing Xinjiang cotton because it was “increasingly difficult” to trace how it was produced. In September, H&M announced it would stop working with a Chinese manufacturer that was accused of using forced labour in a unit unrelated to the Swedish brand.

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

China’s official outrage has so far focused on Europe, possibly because relations with the EU were relatively amicable amid rancour with Washington over trade disputes and accusations of spying and technology theft.

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Official criticism of H&M reflected that tone of grievance at being hurt by a friend.

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“How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then smash China’s pot?” state television said in a commentary on Wednesday.

On Thursday, internet users pointed to clothing brands Uniqlo of Japan and The Gap of the United States as other possible offenders. It was unclear how many of those accounts were members of the public and how many were operated by the ruling party’s vast propaganda apparatus.

Read more: Feds to crack down on companies using forced Uighur labour in China’s Xinjiang region

Pop star Wang Yibo’s announcement that he was quitting as a Nike “brand ambassador” didn’t mention Xinjiang but said he “firmly resists any words and actions that pollute China.”

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

Chinese athletic shoe brand ANTA announced it was pulling out of BCI, the industry cotton group.

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