The clothing retailer H&M has been barraged by negative comments online, with some calling for a boycott, after the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account criticized the company for a months-old statement announcing it’s “deep concern” about allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry. In January, the United States’ Customs and Border Patrol agency banned cotton imports from Xinjiang because it is impossible to verify whether the labor involved in its making is voluntary. The attacks on the Swedish retailer follow the Chinese government’s decision to sanction a Swedish academic, among others, in retaliation for E.U. sanctions placed on China for its Xinjiang policy. At Vice News, Viola Zhou broke the news about state-fostered anger at H&M:
The Communist Youth League, a youth division of the party, attacked the Swedish fast fashion brand in a series of posts on the microblogging site Weibo on Wednesday, accusing it for lying about rights abuse in Xinjiang.
“It is making up lies and boycotting Xinjiang cotton, and it wants to make money in China in the meantime?” the youth league said, prompting a wave of anger at the fashion brand. “Wishful thinking!”
[…] H&M’s former ambassadors in China, celebrities Huang Xuan and Victoria Song, both issued statements, saying they had stopped working with the brand. The statements, trending on Weibo on Wednesday, said the stars were against acts aimed at smearing China. [Source]
— Viola Zhou (@violazhouyi) March 24, 2021
A big part of this discussion on Chinese social media is about the celebrities who are currently representing those brands (some of them A-list idols), and fans are now waiting for them to announce a breakup with the companies
— Viola Zhou (@violazhouyi) March 24, 2021
Bedtime reading today is about H&M being boycotted in China after it declared to stop using Xinjiang cotton. Chinese actor Huang Xuan wrote on Weibo that he would not work for a brand (he was the spokesperson for menswear) that spreads rumors on China’s human rights issues. pic.twitter.com/4XN8TMbd09
— Yaling Jiang (@yaling_jiang) March 24, 2021
Reuters reported on H&M’s apparent disappearance from a number of online shopping platforms:
H&M’s official store on Alibaba’s Tmall, an e-commerce platform, was not accessible on Wednesday. The official People’s Daily reported that searches for H&M products on platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo no longer showed any results. Reuters was unable to determine if such products were previously available.
[…] A graphic in a commentary from the official CCTV that slammed the company for its stance said that “H&M you are no longer at all fashionable”.
Some people on Weibo called for H&M to leave China and for a boycott.
“It is so shameless to smear Xinjiang and we don’t buy your products,” one person said. [Source]
The Wall Street Journal’s Eva Xiao reported on the cascading wave of anger which struck at a host of multi-national clothing companies:
The backlash against H&M nevertheless highlights how multinational companies are being squeezed in an intensifying, high-stakes clash between Beijing and Western governments over human rights.
[…] In addition to H&M, Chinese online users took aim at other international apparel brands that were members of the Better Cotton Initiative, a nonprofit organization that certifies farms according to its cotton sustainability standards.
Consumer goods companies' exposure to China are nothing like what I expected!
China as a % of net sales:
H&M Group: 6%
Apple: 15% (was 20% in 2018)
Estee Lauder: 24% (mainland only; was 13% in 2018)
Would be cool to automatically tabulate these %s every quarter. pic.twitter.com/ThHVCq2Hor
— Yiqin Fu (@yiqinfu) March 24, 2021
People are also circulating this list of member companies of Better Cotton Institute which has stopped certifying Xinjiang cotton, suggesting a boycott. Also mentioned in Weibo comments: Uniqlo and Zara. pic.twitter.com/JpQ566DDaw
— Jeremy Goldkorn (@goldkorn) March 24, 2021
Some Western companies may be under pressure over the Xinjiang issue. Please don't yield to those pressure or behave in a way that is unacceptable to the Chinese market. Staying away from politics is a universal business rule. Breaking such a rule is far riskier than following it
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) March 24, 2021
A similar statement from Nike was also attracting criticism on Wednesday, a sign that Western clothing manufacturers could face growing hostility in China for their public stances against forced labor in Xinjiang and for halting cotton sourcing from the region.
[…] Nike could be next. The company posted a statement on its website expressing concerns “about reports of forced labor in and connected to” Xinjiang. “Nike does not source products” from the region, and “we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”
On Wednesday, Nike was at the top of Weibo’s “hot search” list. Some users were furious that Nike had joined the boycott of cotton from the region. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment. [Source]
After the United States deployed THAAD missiles in South Korea, South Korean companies faced economic retaliation in China. At The South China Morning Post, Eduardo Baptista connected the current H&M firestorm to that faced by South Korea’s K-pop groups and supermarket chains:
The H&M saga is the latest in a string of disputes that foreign multinationals have encountered in China in recent years.
South Korea’s decision to allow the US to install an anti-missile system known as THAAD resulted in South Korea’s highly popular K-pop bands being frozen out of the Chinese market.
South Korean supermarket chains like Lotte were also targeted by protests and vandalism, forcing the company out of China. [Source]
In 2019, Chinese fans burned then-Arsenal star Mesut Özil’s jersey after he tweeted a passionate criticism of China’s treatment of Uyghurs. Months later, Özil was benched by the team, which he believes was a consequence of his criticism of China. Also in 2019, the NBA was pulled from Chinese broadcasts over a Houston Rockets executive’s tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests. During the 2008 Olympics, French supermarket chain Carrefour was boycotted because of a chain-text that accused it of donating to the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government labels an anti-China separatist.
The Weibo account that incited the furor is run by the Communist Youth League, a branch of China’s Communist Party. The CYL account is notorious for stridently nationalist posts and bumbling attempts to connect with China’s youth. In 2020, CYL-created “virtual idols” were mocked so widely they were soon deleted. During the American Capitol Hill riots in early 2021, the CYL was criticized for posts unbecoming of a Party-run account.
The CYL sent out a Weibo post imitating another from People’s Daily that went viral during this past week’s U.S.-China dialogue in Anchorage, Alaska. The original post read “STOP INTERFERING IN CHINA’S INTERNAL AFFAIRS.” The CYL’s reinterpretation read “STOP YUEJIPENGCI WITH XINJIANG COTTON.”
USA, STOP INTERFERING IN CHINA'S INTERNAL AFFAIRS! pic.twitter.com/PtnM0IDwRQ
— Dominic Lee 李梓敬 (@dominictsz) March 19, 2021
"xinjiang cottons don't eat this condom" 🤪 pic.twitter.com/l4boHpZ5QI
— Chenchen Zhang🤦🏻♀️ (@chenchenzh) March 24, 2021
The post is a salient example of state media’s attempt to co-opt the language of fandom and the internet to support nationalist causes. Commentators quickly took to poking “low-level red, high-level black” fun at the nearly nonsensical phrase. “YUEJIPENGCI” is a pinyin rendition of the slang term 越级碰瓷 yuèjí pèngcí—approximately “out of their league attention-seekers”—used to criticize celebrities in China’s fandom culture. (The term is derived from 碰瓷 pèngcí, literally “porcelain bumping,” which refers to fraud involving injury feigned or deliberately incurred by the supposed victim. China Law Translate’s Jeremy Daum has suggested “eggshell extortion” as an English translation in that context.) CDT Chinese editors collected tongue-in-cheek commentary from the internet. CDT English’s abbreviated translation:
@chalibulang: Word of the day: stop YUEJIPENGCI—if you study English with the CYL, a 5/5 on the TOEFL isn’t a dream!”
@yuanqisongshuzhuanshengban: I stared at YUEJIPENGCI for half the day before I realized it was supposed to be “越级碰瓷“
@Straw32berry: I’ve long known “pengci” to be when elderly people scam those who help them up after “falls.” This is a revealing look at our society’s terrible shortcomings in taking care of the elderly. Even if solely focused on the textual use of the word, meaning porcelain, it’s also a speciality word. Does the entire globe have a “pengci” mindset? Can foreigners understand this post?
@mrrabbitorz: Xi Jinping Thought on English with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era
@doushaxiaogou: A state media, I’ve got to say I’m speechless. [Chinese]