‘Get out of China’: H&M faces boycott in China over year-old statement on ‘forced labour’ in Xinjiang

The statement resurfaced after sanctions were imposed by Western countries on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Kayla Wong | March 25, 2021, 06:10 PM

Clothing retailer H&M is facing backlash in China after netizens dug up a statement it made a year ago on the Xinjiang province.

Year-old statement on Xinjiang's "forced labour" resurfaced

In the statement published on its website, H&M said they do not source cotton from Xinjiang due to concerns that "forced labour" is being used there to produce the material.

They also claimed they do not work with any garment manufacturing factories in Xinjiang, and would make sure all the factories they work with in China do not employ workers from Xinjiang via "forced labour" employment schemes.

United Nations experts said that as many as one million Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang have been locked up in internment camps that China calls "re-education centres". China has long refuted accusations of human rights abuses in these places it calls vocational training centres, and said their purpose is to fight extremism.

Chinese call for boycott

Following the revelation of H&M's statement, Chinese social media users exploded in rage, with many making calls to boycott the Swedish multinational company.

A comment on popular microblogging platform Weibo read: "I think it's a great insult to Xinjiang cotton to say that such a low-quality clothing brand used the material."

Another comment read: "Foreigners are terribly unreliable, picking at this problem today, and another problem tomorrow. Supporting local brands is the best, China-made clothing is not in any way inferior to 'western goods', they are both high in quality and affordable."

Netizens have also flooded H&M's Weibo page with calls for the fast-fashion retailer to close up shop in China, with a commenter writing: "Get out of China."

Doubling down on foreign bullying narrative

China's Communist Youth League said in a post that received over 420,000 "like"s: "Spreading rumours about Xinjiang cotton to boycott it on one hand, while still trying to make money in China? Wishful thinking!"

In one of its several posts doubling down on H&M's boycott, the League even brought up China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi's remarks to U.S. Secretary of States Antony Blinken at their Mar. 18 meeting in Alaska.

While the talks were inconclusive, the gathering was hailed as a victory by China for being able to stand up to the U.S. after coming a long way from being humiliated by foreign powers in the past.

Yang had said "the Chinese people won't swallow this", which was one of several quotes that was later printed on merchandise sold in China.

Echoing Yang, the League said Xinjiang cotton "won't swallow this."

Chinese H&M ambassadors drop the brand, H&M pulled from apps

H&M products can no longer be found on popular e-commerce platforms like Alibaba's Taobao, JD and Pinduoduo.

Mobile phone app stores for Chinese brands Xiaomi, Huawei and Vivo have also removed H&M's app, according to Global Times.

In addition, Chinese celebrities Huang Xuan and Song Qian (former K-pop girl band f(x) member, who's also known as Victoria Song), who are H&M's brand ambassadors, have cut ties with the retailer, CGTN reported.

The two actors released statements through their studios that said they oppose any attempt to smear China.

Netizens unimpressed by H&M China's response

Responding to the outrage, H&M China released a statement on Weibo on Wednesday, Mar. 24, saying their supply-chain principles "do not represent any political position".

It added that they source their cotton from third parties, and do not procure cotton directly from any cotton supplier.

The statement further said they respect Chinese consumers, and together with the 350 local manufacturers they are working with, will continue to work towards long-term investment and development in China.

Chinese netizens, however, remained unappeased by the statement.

A commenter wrote: "I'll translate it simply for everyone: I (H&M) didn't do anything wrong."

Another wrote: "Aren't you just trying to tell us we can't afford to kick you out, as 350 Chinese manufacturers are on your payroll.”

China is H&M's fourth largest market, according to Reuters. The country is home to 505 stores as of November last year, only second to the United States with 582 stores.

Bloomberg reported that in the aftermath of the backlash, H&M shares dropped sharply by 2.8 per cent in afternoon trading in Stockholm.

Chinese calling for boycott of other affiliated brands

Other brands associated with Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global non-profit group that H&M is affiliated with, and which promotes better standards in cotton production, have come under fire from netizens as well.

A commenter wrote: "It's all about 'face' when people wear Nike and Adidas, and 'face' is something that results from comparison. If the Chinese people don't wear these brands, there will be nothing to compare with, just kick them all out of China."

Chinese sportswear company Anta Sports, following netizens pointing out that it is also part of BCI, announced that it will withdraw from the organisation, Global Times reported.

Backlash follows Western-imposed sanctions

The call for boycott of the Swedish multinational company comes in the wake of the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposing sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses n Xinjiang.

The move was largely symbolic as the sanctions are not expected to influence China's behaviour or impact its economy.

However, they represent a coordinated Western move against China since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. Biden has pledged to fight China by building on American allies.

China has since retaliated with sanctions of its own on European lawmakers and institutions, and said the move was "based on nothing but lies and disinformation".

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Top image adapted via H&M and Getty Images