A sudden boycott
The story began in September last year, on its official website, H&M announced to stop using cotton from Xinjiang because of “deep concerns” about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, and confirming that the retailer had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region.
However, on March 24, fierce controversy has erupted in China with many calls for people to boycott H&M products. The hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” is currently the most trending topic on Weibo with over 1.8 billion views.
On the evening of March 24, media in China reported that H&M products were removed from all major Chinese e-commerce platforms such as JD, Taobao, and Pinduoduo. Searching for H&M keywords on these platforms also failed.
Many famous brands have issued claims to refuse to buy Xinjiang cotton in the past two years, such as Nike, Adidas, New Balance … However, when H&M’s statement was dug up on the date March 24, mainland Chinese netizens launched a large-scale boycott.
The Weibo account posted: “Want to make money in China but spread false rumors and boycott Xinjiang cotton?” CCTV has in a statement accused H&M of miscalculating by trying to “play a righteous hero” and that the company “will definitely pay a heavy price for its wrong action. Other netizens called H&M’s stance “ignorant and arrogant.”
Facing a wave of fierce boycotts, a few famous Chinese stars have terminated their promotional contracts with H&M and Nike. Some entertainment programs that receive sponsorship from these brands have also postponed screenings and re-edited.
A series of other names then took turns to the top of Weibo’s hot search list. The People’s Daily has listed a series of popular fashion brands for the event, including high-end fashion brands Burberry, sportswear brands Nike, New Balance, and Adidas.
Many Chinese netizens were searching for related brands on the list that had ever made a statement, intending to create “the entire boycott list.” Many brands, including IKEA, Puma, Tommy Hilfiger, and Walmart … have been locked down and may become targets of the next wave of boycotts.
A big question for many years
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China produces 22% of the world’s cotton, of which the Xinjiang area accounts for 84%.
The public backlash against H&M and other international fashion brands came right after the US, European Union, UK, and Canada all spoke out and imposed a series of sanctions to protest against the exploitation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Questions about forced labor and labor exploitation in Xinjiang have been sore for years. In response to the accusations, the Chinese government denied, asserting that they only set up vocational training centers to help ethnic minorities integrate with the community and alleviate poverty.
According to Bloomberg, the latest developments threaten H&M’s revenue and profit growth in its fourth-largest market, amid Beijing’s growing sensitivity to criticism regarding human rights issues in Xinjiang.
Analysts say that China’s response to H&M this time is much stronger than in the past when foreign brands were seen as crossing political boundaries in China.
This puts H&M at risk of becoming the first business victim of Beijing’s growing sensitivity toward criticism from Western governments and entities.
China’s anger at H&M and a host of other Western brands comes at a time when US-China tensions continue to simmer. At the US-China high-level dialogue in Alaska recently, the two countries fought fiercely on issues such as human rights, national security, and trade.
The US on March 26 accused China of conducting a state-backed boycott of both consumers and businesses against companies that refuse to use cotton from Xinjiang. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said China is targeting US, European and Japanese companies that avoid using Xinjiang cotton.
On March 26, H&M removed from the company’s website the statement leading to a wave of boycott in China. However, on this website, there is still a link available with content that expresses a similar stance on cotton sources in Xinjiang.
Domestic goods take advantage of the opportunity
China is a fertile fashion market with 1.4 billion people and huge purchasing power. Global brands are facing a dilemma: either continue to use cotton sourced from Xinjiang or be ostracized in the world’s second-largest economy.
Meanwhile, Chinese fashion brands like Anta Sports or Zhejiang Semir Garment quickly seized the opportunity by issuing statements in favor of Xinjiang cotton.
Some consumers say they will change their fashion needs to Chinese brands. A consumer bought a pair of Huili shoes to support domestic products at the Shimao Tianjie department store after feeling guilty for having bought a pair of Converse.
On March 24, Chinese sportswear manufacturer Anta Sports announced that it had dropped out of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) founded by a Swiss-based cotton organization, and will continue to use cotton produced in Xinjiang.
Chinese state media are also promoting domestic sales of Xinjiang cotton. “I got 7 or 8 orders for Xinjiang cotton blankets in just one afternoon because people are turning to support local products,” said boss Wu, who runs an online store selling the products. Xinjiang said.
What do some Chinese think?
In fact, according to SCMP, from the very first days of the boycott movement, despite the calls for boycotting on social networks, some loyal customers of those brands showed no interest in the “political game.”
Although some famous artists have terminated the contracts with companies such as Adidas and Nike, the country’s soccer teams are still “just as calm.” Contrary to H&M, two US and Germany sportswear and footwear companies did not issue any apologies after Chinese netizens dug back comments from last year on Xinjiang.
Nike and Adidas are still raging on major Chinese e-commerce sites with extremely huge sale codes despite calls: “boycott is patriotism.”
On Sunday, March 28, Nike and Adidas are still operating normally on major Chinese e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and JD.com.
Nike has launched a “shock” discount with women’s sports shoes only about 699 yuan (about 2,500,000 VND) on Tmall, attracting 350,000 registrations. These products sold out immediately, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Teresa Bai, a visitor at the H&M fashion store in Shimao Tianjie (Beijing), said: “This is a ‘political game’ between China and the US. Actually, I think H&M is just a victim. They were forced to choose between the Western market and the Chinese market, and they chose the first, where the larger market share is.”
Commenting on the criticism online, she thinks that consumers should be honest with their judgment, don’t blindly boycott. “As for me, I’ll just buy what I like,” Bai said frankly.
SCMP also caught another young man engrossed in Nike’s shoe selection amid a wave of boycott. “As someone born and raised in China, of course, I should be against Nike. But how can I boycott with such beautiful designs?”
With such a situation, according to SCMP, the movement “boycott is patriotism” maybe soon settle down in China./.