China opposes Nike, H&M for ‘forced labour’ comments on Xinjiang


China’s ruling Communist Party is lashing out at H&M, Nike and other clothing and footwear brands as it retaliates for Western sanctions over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.

The attacks began when the party’s Youth League called attention on social media to a H&M statement in March 2020 which said that it would stop buying cotton from Xinjiang in China’s north-west.

The Swedish retailer, in words also used by some other brands, said it was “deeply concerned” about reports of forced labour there.

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.

Another Global Times report cited what it said was a statement by Zara that it had a “zero-tolerance approach towards forced labour”.

Chinese celebrities including Wang Yibo, a popular singer and actor, announced they were breaking endorsement contracts with H&M and Nike.

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

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Beijing often attacks foreign clothing, automotive, 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 apologise 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 human rights abuses there.

More than a million people in Xinjiang, most of them from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, 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.

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

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H&M’s statement last March cited a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative 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 accused of using forced labour.

In January, Washington imposed a ban on imports of cotton 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 had been relatively amicable amid rancour with Washington over trade disputes and accusations of Chinese spying and technology theft.

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

H&M Group said the company “doesn’t represent any political standpoint” and “respects Chinese consumers.”