BEIJING (AP) – Chinese state television called for a boycott of H&M on Thursday as Beijing lashed out at foreign clothing and shoe brands following Western sanctions against Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
The ruling Communist Party criticized H&M for saying in March 2020 that it would stop buying cotton from the northwest region of China. The Swedish retailer joined other brands in expressing concern over reports of forced labor there.
The party newspaper Global Times also criticized Burberry’s remarks, Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Zara on Xinjiang already two years ago.
“For companies that touch the bottom line of our country, the answer is very clear: don’t buy!” China Central Television said on its social media account. He said that the H and M in the Swedish name mean Chinese words that mean lie and falsehood.
The attacks follow Monday’s decision by 27 nations of the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada to impose financial and travel sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of abuses in Xinjiang.
More than 1 million people in Xinjiang, most of them from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have been confined to labor camps, according to researchers and foreign governments. Beijing denies mistreating them and says it is trying to promote economic development and end radicalism.
“The alleged existence of forced labor in the Xinjiang region is totally fictitious,” said a spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce, Gao Feng. He called on foreign companies to “correct the wrong practices,” but did not say what they were expected to do.
Celebrities such as Wang Yibo, a popular singer and actor, announced that they were breaking endorsement contracts with H&M and Nike.
H&M products were missing from Alibaba Group’s most popular e-commerce platforms in China, TMall and JD.com. The news reports said they were withdrawn due to public criticism of his Xinjiang statement. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Beijing often attacks foreign clothing, car, travel and other brands for the actions of their governments or to pressure companies to conform to their official positions on Taiwan, Tibet and other sensitive issues.
Companies generally apologize and change websites or advertising to maintain access to China, one of the largest global markets. But Xinjiang is an unusually thorny issue. Western brands face pressure at home to distance themselves from potential abuse.
A loss of sales in China, the only major economy in which consumer spending has recovered above pre-pandemic levels, can be especially painful at a time when US and European demand is weak.
H&M Group “does not represent any political point of view” and “respects Chinese consumers,” the company said on its social media account.
The company said it deals with 350 Chinese manufacturers to make products that “comply with the principles of sustainable development.” H&M said it “is committed to long-term investment and development in China.”
H&M had 520 stores and $ 1.4 billion in sales in China in 2019, the latest year for which annual figures were reported. China is its third largest market after Germany and the United States.
The criticism began when the ruling party’s Youth League drew attention Wednesday to H & M’s statement from last March on its social media account. He did not give any indication of why he pointed to the company or an explanation for citing a statement from a year ago.
“Spreading lies to boycott Xinjiang while wanting to make money in China? An illusion, ”said the Youth League.
The Global Times said Burberry, Adidas, Nike and New Balance also made “cutting comments” about Xinjiang cotton. A separate Global Times report cited what it said was a statement by Zara that it had a “zero tolerance approach to forced labor.”
H & M’s statement last year cited a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes environmental and labor standards, to stop licensing Xinjiang cotton because it was “increasingly difficult” to track how it was produced. In September, H&M announced that it would stop working with a Chinese manufacturer accused of performing forced labor at a unit unrelated to the Swedish brand.
In January, Washington imposed a ban on cotton imports from Xinjiang, a major supplier to clothing producers for western markets.
China’s official outrage has focused on Europe, possibly because relations with the EU had been friendly amid bitterness with Washington over trade disputes and accusations of Chinese espionage and technology theft.
Official criticism of H&M reflected that tone of complaint about being hurt by a friend.
“How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then smash the China pot?” state television said in a comment Wednesday.
Online comments cited clothing brands Uniqlo from Japan and The Gap from the United States as other possible offenders. It was unclear how many of those accounts were members of the public and how many were run by the ruling party’s vast propaganda apparatus.
Pop star Wang’s announcement that he would resign as Nike’s “brand ambassador” did not mention Xinjiang. He said he “firmly resists any words and actions that contaminate China.”
Others, including singer and actress Song Qian, a former member of the Korean pop group f (x) who is also known as Victoria Song, and actor Huang Xuan, who announced that endorsement deals with H&M would be ending. Actress Tang Songyun said she was breaking ties with Nike.
Chinese sports shoe brand ANTA announced that it was withdrawing from BCI, the cotton industrial group.