China attacks foreign clothing, shoe brands in Xinjiang

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BEIJING — Chinese state television on Thursday called for a boycott of H&M as Beijing cracked down on foreign clothing and shoe brands following Western sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.

The ruling Communist Party criticized H&M for saying in March 2020 that it would stop buying cotton from the northwest region of China. The Swedish retailer has joined other brands in raising concerns about reports of forced labor there.

The party newspaper Global Times also criticized statements by Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Zara on Xinjiang already two years ago.

“For companies that affect our country’s bottom line, the answer is very clear: don’t buy! said China Central Television on its social media account. He said the “H” and “M” in the Swedish name were Chinese words meaning lie and falsehood.

The attacks follow Monday’s decision by the 27-nation European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada to impose financial and travel sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of abuses in Xinjiang.

More than a million people in Xinjiang, most of whom belong to predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have been confined to labor camps, according to researchers and foreign governments. Beijing denies mistreating them and says it is trying to promote economic development and root out radicalism.

“The so-called existence of forced labor in the Xinjiang region is totally fictitious,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said. He called on foreign companies to “correct bad practices”, but did not specify what they were supposed to do.

Celebrities such as Wang Yibo, a popular singer and actor, have announced that they are breaking endorsement deals with H&M and Nike.

H&M products were absent from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s TMall and JD.com. News reports said they were taken down due to public criticism of his statement on Xinjiang. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Beijing often attacks foreign clothing, auto, travel and other brands for the actions of their governments or for pressuring companies to comply with its official positions on Taiwan, Tibet and other issues. sensitive.

Companies typically apologize and change websites or advertising to retain access to China, one of the world’s biggest markets. But Xinjiang is an exceptionally thorny issue. Western brands are under pressure at home to distance themselves from potential abuse.

A loss of sales in China, the only major economy where consumer spending has rebounded above pre-pandemic levels, can be particularly painful at a time when US and European demand is weak.

H&M Group “does not represent any political views” and “respects Chinese consumers”, the company said on its social media account.

The company said it does business with 350 Chinese manufacturers to produce products “in line with the principles of sustainable development”. H&M said it is “committed to long-term investment and development in China.”

Brian Ehrig, a partner in the consumer practice at global strategy and management consultancy Kearney, said it’s likely that around 60-70% of H&M’s raw materials, such as fabrics, come from China. He said if H&M is cut, it will be much more difficult for the company to access these materials and it could lead to higher prices and production delays.

H&M had 520 stores and $1.4 billion in sales in China in 2019, the last year for which annual figures were released. China is its third market after Germany and the United States.

The criticism began when the ruling party’s Youth League drew attention to H&M’s statement from last March on its social media account on Wednesday. He gave no indication of why he chose the company or an explanation for citing a year-old statement.

“Spreading lies to boycott Xinjiang while trying to make money in China? A wishful thinking, ”said the Youth League.

The Global Times said Burberry, Adidas, Nike and New Balance also made “sharp remarks” about Xinjiang cotton. A separate Global Times report cited what it said was a statement by Zara that it had a “zero tolerance approach to forced labor”.

H&M’s statement last year cited a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes environmental and labor standards, to stop licensing cotton from Xinjiang 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 labor in a unit unrelated to the Swedish brand.

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

Official Chinese outrage has focused on Europe, perhaps because relations with the EU had been friendly amid rancor with Washington over trade disputes and accusations of Chinese espionage and technology theft.

H&M’s official review reflected this tone of grievance at being hurt by a friend.

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

Internet comments cite clothing brands Uniqlo from Japan and The Gap from the United States as other possible offenders. It was unclear how many of those accounts were members of the public and how many were run by the ruling party’s vast propaganda apparatus.

Pop star Wang’s announcement that he was stepping down as Nike “brand ambassador” did not mention Xinjiang. He said he “strongly resists all words and actions that pollute China.”

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

Chinese sports shoe brand ANTA has announced its withdrawal from BCI, the cotton industry group.

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AP Retail Writer Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.

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