China is orchestrating a boycott of H&M over the Swedish fashion giant’s decision to stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang because of forced labour concerns.
The coordinated assault is part of Beijing’s broader strategy to push back against sanctions from the West over human rights abuses in the region.
It appears to have started with a social media post by the Chinese Communist Party’s youth division that blasted H&M for saying last year it was “deeply concerned” about the human rights allegations in Xinjiang.
“Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” read the post, which was published on Wednesday morning and liked nearly half a million times, shared 40,000 times and attracted 16,000 comments.
Chinese state media attacked H&M, saying the brand “will definitely pay a heavy price for its wrong actions”.
State media also said the brand would “rather believe the lies spread by a few people than hear the voices of billions of Chinese people,” a line that government officials have said repeatedly when denying human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
By Thursday morning, searches for H&M products and store locations were blocked on Chinese e-commerce platforms and online map platforms. Celebrities had also backed out of endorsement deals, saying H&M’s actions amounted to “slander” of China, according to state media.
The attack against H&M comes after the EU, UK, US and Canada on Monday announced sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang region. China immediately announced its own sanctions against European officials and entities.
Backlash is poised to grow with more foreign brands already coming under fire for their stances on Xinjiang. Chinese consumers are already taking aim online at Adidas, Nike and Ikea for being members of the Better Cotton Initiative, a cotton sustainability organisation that suspended licensing of farms in Xinjiang last year.
Some internet users said they would stop buying Nike and instead support local brands such as Li Ning and Anta, while others told Adidas to leave China.
“If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China,” one internet user wrote.
Better Cotton Initiative’s website, bettercotton.org, was down on Thursday morning for some users outside of China. It was not immediately clear why.
China has unleashed the power of its 1.4 billion consumers to boycott foreign brands amid broader geopolitical spats in the past, which has been devastating financially for businesses.
Conglomerate Lotte Group, for example, was forced to retreat from China due to a state-encouraged backlash against South Korean brands following the 2017 installation of a US anti-missile defence system aimed at deterring North Korea on land owned by the firm. At the time, Beijing argued that the defence equipment would increase American spying capabilities into China.
China has threatened further retaliation as pressure grows over its policies in Xinjiang. Beijing, however, has continued to reject human rights abuse allegations in the region even as the US, Canada and the Netherlands decided this year that Beiing’s actions in the region amounted to genocide. More Western governments are assessing whether to make the same determination.
H&M has posted on Chinese social media saying the company didn’t “represent any political stance.” The retailer, which operates more than 500 stores in China – one of its largest markets – didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.