Multinational clothing retailer H&M last week found itself the target of a state-sponsored storm of nationalistic scorn and a widespread boycott by Chinese consumers over a (recently deleted) October 2020 statement expressing “deep concern” about persistent allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang.
The Swedish retailer was the first and primary focus of the online rage, but other major companies who had previously made statements about ceasing use of Xinjiang cotton—including Nike, Adidas, Burberry, and Uniqlo—were also targeted by online ire. Subsequently, several Chinese celebrities and companies announced plans to terminate contracts with the brands. In reaction to the global tide of companies pledging to do their part in mitigating ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang—atrocities that the Chinese government continues to deny despite a growing body of evidence—many Chinese brands and influential figures joined nationalistic netizens in an online “support Xinjiang cotton” movement.
Meanwhile, authorities and state media played their part in fanning the flames of outrage. CDT Chinese editors found tight control of search results and social media commentary surrounding H&M and Xinjiang.
At the South China Morning Post, Celia Chen and Iris Deng reported on the role played by Chinese e-commerce firms’ in the boycott:
On Friday morning, an order placed for food to be delivered to an H&M store was denied by on-demand service giant Meituan. Hailing a car with an H&M store as the destination was not possible on ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing, which did not recognise the store address as being valid. Users were also not able to find H&M stores as destinations on China’s major online maps including Baidu, Tencent and AutoNavi maps.
[…] Further, H&M products were blocked for purchase on China’s leading e-commerce platforms including Taobao, owned by Alibaba Group Holding (owner of the Post), JD.com, and Pinduoduo.
[…On] Thursday, internet giant Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins”, outfits worn by video game characters, from its popular title Honour of Kings, just days after it unveiled a deal with the brand to promote its outfits in online games.
Tencent’s decision, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter, was related to Burberry’s position on Xinjiang-produced cotton as a member of the Better Cotton Initiative. London-based Burberry said last year that it did not use any raw materials from Xinjiang, where Beijing denies claims of genocide and forced labour in the region. [Source]
Up to 20% of the world’s cotton supply comes from Xinjiang. In January, the U.S. issued a complete import ban on cotton and tomatoes from the region. H&M is a member of the nonprofit governance group the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), and is one of many western brands to be targeted in the storm for membership in the organization. Prior to H&M’s now-deleted October statement, the BCI last year suspended activities in Xinjiang over “persistent allegations of forced labour and human rights abuses.”
At The New York Times, Raymond Zhong and Paul Mozur recalled last week’s state-fostered show of anger against the brands, noting it as an example of Beijing’s increasing ability to “whip up storms of patriotic anger to punish companies” that challenge Beijing’s politics with the help of Chinese social media influencers:
“The hate-fest part is not sophisticated; it’s the same logic they’ve followed going back decades,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. But “their ability to control it is getting better,” he said.
[…] Squirrel Video, a Weibo account dedicated to silly videos, shared the Communist Youth League’s original post on H&M with its 10 million followers. A gadget blogger in Chengdu with 1.4 million followers shared a clip showing a worker removing an H&M sign from a mall. A user in Beijing who posts about television stars highlighted entertainers who had ended their contracts with Adidas and other targeted brands.
[…]Many web users who speak up during such campaigns are motivated by genuine patriotism, even if China’s government does pay some people to post party-line comments. Others, such as the traffic-hungry blog accounts derided in China as “marketing accounts,” are probably more pragmatic. They just want the clicks.
In these moments of mass fervor, it can be hard to say where official propaganda ends and opportunistic profit seeking begins. [Source]
The issue has growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to roil global retail, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. One the other, China has become an evermore important sales hub to the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption there than in other key markets, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians are getting in on the act, imposing bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.
This is a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives come up against global morality. […] [Source]
For a detailed roundup of the “support Xinjiang cotton” movement—who’s associated hashtag as of March 28 had garnered more than six billion views on Weibo—and Beijing’s activities over the last year that led to it, read “Support Xinjiang MianHua!” – China’s Social Media Storm over Xinjiang Cotton Ban at What’s on Weibo. In the article, Manya Koetse noted that amid the chaos, another hashtag emerged reminding angry netizens of the impact this has on many ordinary Chinese:
In light of the heated discussions and calls for boycotts, there was also another hashtag that popped up on Weibo, namely that of “don’t make it hard for the workers” (不要为难打工人). The hashtag came up after some Chinese staff members at Nike and Adidas stores were scolded on a live stream, with netizens calling on people to stay rational and not let the boycott turn into personal attacks on people. But another popular video showed a man in Chongqing calling customers out in an H&M store for buying their “trash.” [Source]
CDT earlier translated examples of Chinese web users who criticized the “support Xinjiang cotton” movement, including some from commenters who urged their angry compatriots to support Chinese workers and also the Xinjiang people.
CDT Chinese editors have since archived further examples of online commentary deviating from the “anti-anti-forced labor” sentiment of the widely covered and state-sanctioned uproar of nationalism. In one WeChat essay that appears to still be live on the platform, @有病要讀書plus recalled the 2012 case of Li Jianli, who was left paralyzed and traumatized after being violently attacked during anti-Japanese protests in Xi’an for driving a Japanese car. CDT has translated a short excerpt from the article, in which the author points out a major contradiction in the conduct of these self-described patriots:
I’m saying that some people these days are truly amazing. They are perpetually bursting with rage or exploding in tears as if they have some sort of mental illness.
Their naiveté and cynicism is extremely vicious. They are keen to make arrests among fellow ordinary citizens. They are very good at tagging others with unfair labels and collecting backup material. […]
Each and every one of them is like an accountant, looking to the whole wide world to settle accounts. They are not looking for the correct stance, but rather looking to fight with a team on their side. They want only to hear patriotic slogans being shouted, so that’s all they will allow.
I just wonder, how can these people have such a great sense of and urging for “justice” while maintaining indifference to the many injustices and abnormalities that surround them?
How does that work?
[…] Supporting something is of course the easiest and least costly thing one can do. But, what about supporting the tens of thousands of workers in the industrial supply chain that are facing unemployment?
Could it be that some people here are living a type of life that you can’t stand to believe?
Your boycotts only invite boycotts, your condemnation leads only to condemnation, and your resentment breeds only resentment.
[…] It is impossible for those with no love for their compatriots to truly be patriotic. If they care not for these specific individuals, then they don’t deserve to use the term “comrade.” […] [Chinese]
Also on WeChat, @南方找北 similarly analyzed the meaning of patriotism. After reminding the “protesters” who live broadcast themselves destroying Nike sneakers not to forget that “there are still 600 million people in China who make less than 1,000 yuan a month and can’t afford a pair of Nikes,” the author explains their understanding of patriotism with a long list of examples, including: “In my understanding, patriotism exists not only in people’s words, but in concrete actions that show love for those around them,” and “my understanding of patriotism is [shown in the words of] the whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang: ‘There should be more than one voice in a healthy society’.”
Another WeChat essay archived by CDT Chinese (but, apparently still online in China) is titled “Behind the H&M Incident Lies the Livelihoods of Countless Workers.” The post offers a detailed look at China’s position in the global textile and garment supply chain, and at the mainstream nature of ethical standards and multi-stakeholder governance organizations like the Better Cotton Initiative in modern international trade. The author concludes: “If our firms wish to continue engaging with Western markets, then rather than simply bullying they must comply with the guiding principles of supply chain risk management and maintain dialogue with the international community in transparency and trust.”
One Weibo user, @YvonnAlmond, spoke out against rampant online nationalism, writing: “A country where you can’t protest in the streets has raised a den of internet vigilantes… They’re always making trouble, making noise.” She was later detained by the Beijing Public Security Bureau.
The Wall Street Journal this week reported that Chinese propaganda authorities “quietly celebrated in Beijing two days after a Chinese social-media post helped ignite a frenzy of outrage against Western clothing brands […] in what they saw as a victory in a new effort to inoculate China against criticisms from the West.” At Bloomberg, opinion columnist Clara Ferreira Marques questions the accuracy of the reportedly victorious propagandists, noting a surefire result of the high profile nationalism Beijing has fanned over the last week: sustained focus on the situation in Xinjiang both in China and abroad:
For now, there’s only one clear outcome from this mess, and that’s noise. Boycotts will keep bringing attention to accusations of brutal abuse against Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in parts of China where too little light is shed.