Western fashion brands such as Nike and H&M faced calls to boycott China on Thursday as Beijing rejected allegations of human rights abuses against the country’s Uighur Muslim minority with increasing ferocity.
The United States announced in January that it would halt all cotton imports from China’s Xinjiang region, a leading global supplier of the material, over concerns about forced labor, while major retailers issued statements expressing their concerns.
In the wake of new Western sanctions earlier this week against officials responsible for the region in the northwest of the country, those corporate statements resurfaced on Chinese social media and were met with fury.
State-controlled media and online users criticized the two brands, and German sportswear giant Adidas and American brand Tommy Hilfiger also came under fire.
“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.
Many users also joined calls for a boycott, urging local retailers to have national stocks in place.
The #ISupportXJCotton hashtag, created by the state-owned People’s Daily, generated more than 2 million ‘likes’ as of Thursday on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.
The fallout continued offline as well, with Chinese celebrities quickly disengaging from brands and breaking endorsement deals.
Popular actor Wang Yibo has terminated his contract with Nike, his agency said in a statement posted on Weibo on Thursday.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
The backlash appeared to start when the Communist Party’s Youth League on Wednesday drew attention to a statement initially issued by Swedish company H&M last year.
It also prompted users to seek statements previously issued by other foreign retailers in Xinjiang.
The original statement from the H&M Group said it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and the media that include allegations of forced labor and discrimination against ethnic-religious minorities in Xinjiang.”
The company said Thursday that “at this time we have nothing more to share” and directed NBC News to the statement.
Nike’s statement is undated and reads: “We are concerned about and related to reports of forced labor in and related to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Nike does not source products from XUAR and we have confirmed with our contracted suppliers that they are not using textiles. or yarns from the region “.
Nike did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News.
However, in a statement posted on its official Weibo page on Wednesday, H&M China said that the global company had always managed its supply chain in an “open and transparent manner” and did not “represent any political position.”
“The H&M Group continues to respect the Chinese consumer. We are committed to long-term investment and development in China,” he said.
As the world’s second-largest economy and home to 1.4 billion people, Chinese purchasing power is strong.
“Actually, this is not the first time this kind of nationalist backlash has occurred against a foreign company,” said Xin Sun, professor of China and East Asia Business at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.
Chinese consumers have previously launched powerful boycotts of products from Japan, South Korea and the United States in the past decade, he said, often with the “unofficial and implicit” endorsement of the ruling Communist Party.
But with the Uyghur problem at a growing flash point and tensions between Washington and Beijing show no signs of abating, Sun said it was becoming more difficult for Western brands to operate in both markets.
“They are trying to respond to increasing scrutiny from Western customers and people about their supply chains,” he told NBC News.
“They are walking a fine line between the western market and, of course, the Chinese market is too big for them, but you see the political pressure coming from all directions.”
The latest reaction comes shortly after the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada issued sanctions against Chinese officials on Monday. Beijing retaliated with its own sanctions, but has also been stepping up public efforts to counter allegations of wrongdoing in Xinjiang.
A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce, Gao Feng, said Thursday that the forced labor allegations in Xinjiang were “completely false”, urging foreign companies to “correct their irregularities and prevent business activities from turning into political problems. “.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said at a press conference on Thursday that the “strong reaction from Chinese netizens” spoke for themselves and that the Chinese people had the right to express their feelings and “oppose malicious attacks. against China based on rumors and lies. “
He also showed photos at the daily press conference of black people picking cotton in the US, and contrasts them with a second photograph of people smiling in cotton fields in Xinjiang.
More than a million Uyghur Muslims are believed to be held in internment camps in the region where they are forced to study Marxism, renounce their religion, work in factories and suffer abuse, according to human rights groups and first-hand accounts. of Uyghurs.
Beijing refers to the centers as “re-education camps” and says they offer vocational training and are necessary to fight extremism.
The United States has called China’s practices in the area “genocide,” which Beijing rejects.
Isabel Wang, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed.