This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Chinese social media users are targeting global fashion retailers including H&M, Nike and Adidas for criticism and boycotts over statements they had previously made regarding cotton sourced in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where up to 1.8 million Uyghurs have been incarcerated in internment camps.
The United States said in January that the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being targeted by China as part of a state-backed genocide, and the parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands have followed suit.
Up to 1.8 million people are believed to have been held in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since early 2017.
Reports also suggest that Uyghurs being subjected to torture, forced labor, state-enforced birth control including forced sterilizations and abortions, and cultural eradication.
Internet users in China also targeted the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a campaign group that has said it would remove its seal of approval from cotton sourced from Xinjiang during the 2020-2021 season.
Users targeted Spain’s Inditex, which owns the Zara clothing chain, and which has vowed to use only BCI-endorsed cotton by 2025.
They also took aim at Sweden’s H&M, which also announced it would stop using Xinjiang cotton after the BCI withdrew approval.
A China-based user of the audio chat app Clubhouse, who gave only a nickname J, said the app’s chatrooms were buzzing with calls for boycotts on Thursday.
“In the past, we had the [campaign against the] Eight Allied Forces during the Boxer rebellion , and now it’s against the Five Eyes countries,” J said. “It may not be out-and-out war, but there’s a sense that we’re fighting against the U.S., Japan, the E.U. and other countries.”
Nike and Adidas, both of which had said they will end the use of cotton from Xinjiang, also came under fire on Chinese social media platforms.
The Chinese government weighed in behind social media campaigners on Thursday, calling on the companies to “correct their mistakes.”
“Chinese people do not allow some foreigners to eat Chinese food while smashing Chinese bowls,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Meanwhile, commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng said Beijing opposed external interference in Xinjiang, and that Xinjiang cotton could not be tarnished.
Propaganda could backfire
Nike said in a statement that it “does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”
The Oregon-based U.S. multinational firm added: “We have been conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential forced labor risks related to employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from XUAR, in other parts of China.”
Meiirbek Salanbek, a Kazakh citizen journalist exiled in France, said the online criticism and boycotts were likely orchestrated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the first place in response to international sanctions being imposed on officials linked to rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
On Monday, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the U.S. leveled sanctions against Chinese officials and security entities as part of a multilateral approach to hold to account those responsible for abuses in the XUAR.
“The Chinese government used to restrict any discussion of Xinjiang-related topics in China; they didn’t want people talking about it at all,” Salanbek said.
“Now they are setting it as a topic of concern to manipulate public opinion,” he said. “But doing that will make people aware that there is indeed a human rights crisis happening in Xinjiang, and they will start to pay more attention to that.”
Uyghur exile groups who have long pushed for sanctions and measure to draw attention to forced labor in Xinjiang’s key cotton industry shared the same view of China’s new campaign.
China’s “retaliatory actions reflect a growing aggression by the Chinese Communist Party to lash out to eliminate perceived threats against it, as the pressure on Beijing increases internationally as they continue their operations of mass oppression and genocide,” said Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU) advocacy group in a statement Thursday.
“The Chinese regime is clearly in a weak spot and is acting irrationally to not only defend their use of forced labor, but to attack anyone who prioritizes due diligence or has concern for human rights. This is in keeping with their consistent defense of their genocidal crimes,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based CFU.
Pu Lin, a doctoral student in political science at Tulane University, said no criticism of foreign companies would be allowed if the CCP hadn’t endorsed it through approved media and social media accounts in the first place.
“This is all about China’s response to pressure from the U.S. and the E.U.,” Pu said. “All of the international brands [here] have a China market.”
“This is a good opportunity for China to engage in some wolf-warrior diplomacy and force companies to buy Xinjiang cotton,” Pu said. “The CCP is manipulating the situation to use as leverage, as a bargaining chip.”
Hong Kongers reject Xinjiang cotton
Meanwhile, Japan’s Ryohin Keikaku, which owns Muji, has been less than emphatic about removing cotton from Xinjiang from their supply chains.
Muji, which operates 275 stores in mainland China, more than a quarter of its global network, won praise on Chinese social media platforms, with commenters saying the company knew how to survive, after Ryohin Keikaku was quoted by the CCP-backed Global Times as saying that it does use cotton from Xinjiang.
The company told Reuters it was for its suppliers to correct any “issues” in their Xinjiang operations.
Some shoppers in Hong Kong who spoke to RFA on Thursday said they were unwilling to keep buying cotton from Xinjiang.
“I never thought a Japanese company would use cotton from Xinjiang,” a shopper surnamed Man said. “Now we know, we won’t buy it.”
A resident surnamed Ma said she would boycott the company.
“Neither Uniqlo nor Nike sell [goods made with] Xinjiang cotton, but [Muji] doesn’t seem to care so I wouldn’t buy from them,” she said. “I think we need to pay more attention to human rights and the environment.”
Parent company Fast Retailing has previously said that no Uniqlo products are manufactured in Xinjiang, and that none of its suppliers is based there.
Another shopper surnamed Lau said she would carry on shopping at Muji, however. “I don’t know if this news is true or false. It may be propaganda,” she said.
At the same time, however, Hong Kong pop star Eason Chan said he would withdraw from his partnership with Adidas, which also works with BCI to ensure a more ethical supply chain.
Amid pressure on entertainers who serve China’s market, Chan said via his Sina Weibo account that he felt compelled to “resist any behavior that stigmatizes China.”
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