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H&M Faces China Boycott Calls as Wang Yibo Ends Nike Cooperation Over Xinjiang Cotton

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Retailer H&M is facing a nationalist backlash in China after year-old comments related to cotton production in Xinjiang became the focus of a social media campaign against the brand.

The Swedish fast fashion company has been the subject of a wave of online criticism in the past 24 hours, with major ecommerce platforms such as Taobao apparently pulling its products from their sites amid calls for a boycott.

The social media storm is based on a statement published by H&M. The English language equivalent reads in part, “H&M Group is deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of forced labour and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). We strictly prohibit any type of forced labour in our supply chain, regardless of the country or region.”

The statement is undated, though some reports have suggested that it was published in March last year.

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The Chinese Communist Party’s young people-focused organization the Communist Youth League was among those voicing outrage on social media over the statement, using its official account on microblogging site Weibo to lambast H&M for “finding fault” with cotton production in the region. “Want to make money in China while spreading false rumors and boycotting Xinjiang cotton?” read one post from the Youth League’s official handle. “Wishful thinking!”

As the attacks were ramped up, H&M’s celebrity ambassadors in China were quick to retreat, with actor and singer Victoria Song’s studio announcing she had cut ties with the brand and film star Huang Xuan’s representatives doing the same.

The trigger for the statement being dug up now appears to be the EU’s recent announcement of sanctions against former and current officials and a construction company in China over alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

H&M is not the only company with a public commitment to not use Xinjiang cotton, with the issue seemingly fast becoming a key test for nationalists. Chinese sports brand Anta was among those quick to affirm its commitment to using cotton from the region in its products as the hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” became one of the top-trending topics on Weibo, amassing 1 billion views in a short period of time.

Nike has also come under the spotlight, with mega star Wang Yibo‘s management announcing Thursday morning China time that he was ending his cooperation with the brand.

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An undated statement on Nike’s website reads, “We are concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Nike does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”

It now appears that Tencent’s esports teams are also rejecting Nike’s sponsorship as the controversy rumbles on:

The drama continues to spiral, with Chinese celebrities rushing to back away from any brands that have declared they don’t use Xinjiang cotton, with some unexpected consequences:

Cover photo: Sei on Unsplash 

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of RADII and Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for the Associated Press, The Wire, the Financial Times and more.