FPJ Explains: What prompted China to boycott H&M, Nike and other big brands?

Several prominent Western brands have ended up in China's bad books recently, with the Asian nation announcing sanctions over what it has dubbed "lies and disinformation" about its role in Xinjiang.

Burberry, H&M, Nike, Adidas and several other companies are now facing flak over their decision to stop buying cotton from the northwestern Chinese region. Numerous companies have citied human rights concerns. The concern is not new. For several years now, many countries have flagged cotton sourced from the area, contending that the Uighur minority in the area are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour.

A Center for Global Policy report from mid-December 2020 contends that there is significant evidence that the cotton is "tainted" by human rights abuse. "The evidence shows that in 2018, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme. Xinjiang’s total labor transfer of ethnic minorities into cotton picking likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand," reads an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the report.

But why is China hitting out at these Western companies? According to recent reports, the Asian nation has taken umbrage to the fact that many companies are distancing themselves directly or indirectly from the Xinjiang cotton. Burberry for example is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative that had declared some time ago that it would suspend approval for cotton sourced from the area. Brands such as H&M, Adidas AG and Nike Inc are also being penalised for expressing critical views on the labour conditions or taking action to curb use of cotton from the area.

The repercussions however are likely to affect their bottom lines. H&M which sells through various Chinese e-commerce and service apps has had its products from the digital stores. Burberry lost a Chinese brand ambassador and its hallmark tartan design has now vanished from a popular video game.

The recent outrage appears to have been triggered by the widespread sharing of a statement from H&M where they had expressed concern about reports pertaining to "accusations of forced labour and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region". This statement was recently posted on the Chinese social media site Weibo by a group linked to the ruling Communist Party.

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