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Beijing Lashes Out at Western Fashion Brands

WAR OF WORDS OVER HUMAN RIGHTS SPILLS OVER INTO LICENSING, AS CHINA HITS BACK AGAINST H&M, ADIDAS, NIKE, AND MORE

Stung by accusations of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, Beijing is lashing out at Western fashion brands that have criticized the Chinese government.

Already, Chinese state TV has called for a boycott of the Swedish retailer H&M, following sanctions by Western governments on Chinese officials accused of taking part in human rights abuses against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang.

Some Chinese celebrities, like singer-actors Wang Yibo and Eason Chan (pictured), have begun cutting ties with Western companies. Chan, for example, has faced a backlash from fans in China after stepping down as a celebrity ambassador for Adidas. Wang similarly stepped down as brand ambassador for Nike, saying he “resists any words and actions that pollute China.”

The popular singer and actress Song Qian, also known as Victoria Song, and actor Huang Xuan, were among those who announced they would end endorsement contracts with H&M, and actress Tan Songyun said she is breaking ties with Nike. The war on Western fashion brands is also extending into the corporate world, as the Chinese athletic shoe brand ANTA announced it is cancelling its membership in BCI, the industry cotton group.

The dispute between China and Western companies stems from criticism of the cotton industry, particularly by clothing and footwear brands like H&M, Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance, and Zara. All of those companies have expressed concerns for the past two years over reports of forced labor in the cotton industry involving the country’s minority Uyghur community.

The response came quickly, as all those companies came under fierce criticism over the past week by the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper Global Times, while Chinese state TV called for an outright boycott of H&M. That company was more specifically targeted because it announced in March last year that it would no longer buy cotton from the Xinjiang region due to China’s history of human rights abuses.

“For enterprises that touch the bottom line of our country, the response is very clear: Don’t buy!” China Central Television said on its social media account.

The attacks follow the announcement Monday by the 27-nation European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada to impose travel and financial sanctions on four Chinese officials blamed for abuses in Xinjiang.

Western governments say more than one million people in Xinjiang have been confined to work camps, the vast majority of them members of Muslim ethnic groups.

China denies any claims of abuse, saying it is running programs to promote economic development, create jobs, and stamp out radical elements.

“The so-called existence of forced labor in the Xinjiang region is totally fictitious,” said Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng.

In another country, the call for a boycott would likely not have an immediate, concrete effect, but in China, particularly over the past year, government’s control of the commercial sector has been demonstrated in dramatic fashion. In the most reported story, Alibaba founder Jack Ma essentially disappeared from public view after criticizing the government’s fiscal policies, and Alibaba’s planned IPO was abruptly cancelled.

Beijing also has a history of retaliating against social influencers who criticize the government or Chinese society in general. In the best known case, the country’s number one movie actress Fan Bing Bing disappeared for four months in 2018. It was later learned the government had detained Fan while investigating her for alleged tax evasion. A thoroughly cowed Fan later thanked the government, saying, “It has made me calm down and think seriously about what I want to do in my future life.”

Now, within days of the Chinese state media’s response, H&M products are missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, which include the Alibaba Group’s TMall and JD.com. Again, news reports said they were removed due to ‘public criticism’ over H&M’s statement about forced labor in Xinjiang.

The moves made by the Chinese government are not that unusual, as Beijing often will retaliate against Western commercial interests when it is in a trade dispute, or when it wants to pressure corporations to accept its official position on human rights, the current aggression against Taiwan, or other sensitive political issues.

Unlike China, where leaders are not elected and don’t need to concern themselves with pleasing corporate donors, Western elected officials, particularly in the United States, depend heavily on corporate election donations. For that reason, China sees retaliation against Western corporations as a means to influence governments and to weaken their resolve on trade sanctions.

Already, H&M Group is moving to defuse the situation in China, saying in social media that it “respects Chinese consumers” and that it “doesn’t represent any political standpoint.” H&M also says it is committed to long-term investment in China.

Threats from China can be almost as effective with foreign companies as with domestic firms, given the large investments made in the country. According to a report by Associated Press, “H&M had 520 stores and $1.4 billion in sales in China in 2019, the last year for which annual figures have been reported. China is its third-largest market after Germany and the United States.”

In this case, however, the situation is complicated by the increasingly hard line Western governments are taking on the issue of human rights in China. In January, as President Joe Biden took office, the US imposed a ban on all imports of cotton from Xinjiang province, which is a major supplier to clothing producers globally.

And that’s only the tip of a dangerous iceberg when it comes to corporations doing business in China, as the US under Biden is also leading an effort to form a new alliance, apparently dedicated to preventing Chinese aggression in the region. The so-called ‘Quad’ includes the US, India, Australia and Japan, but could involve other nations as well, such as Canada, which is angry with China after that country detained two of its citizens on flimsy charges.

While discussions by the Quad don’t specifically reference China, the US is forming that alliance to bolster its strength in the region, and each member has its own reasons to be upset with the government in Beijing. Australia, for example, has been hit with massive tariffs after criticizing Chinese secrecy around the origin of the coronavirus. India is currently involved in a deadly border dispute with China in the Himalayas, and Japan is angry over China’s attempts to control the South China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan.

Most analysts expect tensions between China and the West to increase sharply over the coming year—with corporations and global brands likely to be caught in the crossfire.

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