A woman wearing a mask passes by a Nike store in Beijing on March 25, 2021. (AP)
A woman wearing a mask passes by a Nike store in Beijing on March 25, 2021. (AP)

H&M, Nike in hot soup in China over forced Uighur labour comments

Retail giants such as H&M and Nike are facing a massive social media backlash in China for statements on the use of forced Uighur labour to pick cotton in the northwestern Xinjiang province
By Sutirtho Patranobis I Edited by Amit Chanda
PUBLISHED ON MAR 25, 2021 02:23 PM IST

Retail giants such as H&M and Nike are facing a massive social media backlash in China for statements on the use of forced Uighur labour to pick cotton in the northwestern Xinjiang province.

Xinjiang is currently in the middle of tit-for-tat sanctions between Beijing and the West for alleged human rights abuses. The European Union, the US, Britain and Canada on Monday imposed sanctions on Chinese officials accusing them of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

China retaliated with its own sanctions against few European lawmakers, institutions and academics.

The massive online backlash was triggered by a social media post by the Communist Youth League, a Communist Party of China (CPC) group, on Wednesday after it published old statements made by the companies.

In separate statements, the companies had said that they were “concerned” about reports that Uighurs were being forced to pick cotton in Xinjiang, and that they did not source products from the region.

While H&M had made the statement last year, it was unclear when Nike had put out its statement. “We are concerned about reports of forced labour in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR),” Nike said.

The Communist Youth League quoted the statements, seemingly as a part of Beijing’s retaliation against the sanctions levelled by western countries.

“Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of China’s ruling party, said in a post on the Weibo social media platform.

Online response against the old posts was overwhelming with millions calling for the boycott of the companies. While many called for boycotts, celebrities cut ties, and e-commerce platforms have dropped the retailer, H&M.

China, according to Reuters, is H&M’s fourth-biggest market with sales of 2.9 billion Swedish krona ($337 million) in the 12 months through November 2020. It has hundreds of outlets across China.

More angry responses were targeted at the company after H&M China said in an announcement on Wednesday evening that the group had always upheld the principles of openness and transparency in the management of the global supply chain, ensuring that suppliers around the world comply with sustainability commitments such as the “OECD Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct”, and that it does not represent any political position.

“Chinese netizens don’t buy the H&M reply regarding Xinjiang cotton, and some said the reply implies that the firm is not doing wrong,” the China-based Global Times said in a report on Thursday.

“As of 8am on Thursday, more than 115,000 comments were made after the company’s statement was made late on Wednesday, and one of the top comments is that ‘let me translate, the reply is that, I am not doing wrong’,” the GT report added.

According to Reuters, topics around the Nike statement were among the highest trending on China’s Twitter-like social media Weibo on Thursday, and the social media storm had wider fallout. Popular Chinese actor Wang Yibo terminated his contract as a representative for Nike in response to social media criticism over its Xinjiang statement, his agency said on Weibo on Thursday.

Xinjiang is the largest cotton growing region in China, ranking first nationally in total output, per unit production and planting area for 25 consecutive years, Chinese state media reported last year. In 2020, the total cotton planting area in Xinjiang reached 2.51 million hectares, nearly the same as in 2019.

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