Nike, H&M Face Backlash in China For Commenting on Forced Labor in Xinjiang

More foreign retail brands were criticized on Chinese social media on Thursday after Beijing's propaganda offensive against Sweden's H&M sparked by the company's expression of concern about labour conditions in Xinjiang.

Earlier this week, China denied allegations of human rights abuses by its officials in the western region of Xinjiang after the European Union, United States, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on the officials.

Beijing hit back with retaliatory sanctions on European lawmakers, scholars and institutions.

Chinese state media singled out H&M on Wednesday for a statement that was reported by media last year in which the Swedish retailer said it was deeply concerned by reports of accusations of forced labour in Xinjiang, and that it did not source products from the Chinese region.

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An employee works inside a chemical factory in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS

It was unclear why the H&M statement was back in the public eye.

A social media frenzy ignited by a government call to stop foreign brands from tainting China's name prompted internet users to search for other previously issued statements on Xinjiang by foreign retailers.

Brands targeted by Internet users included Nike Inc, which in an undated statement said it was "concerned" about reports of forced labour, as did German sportswear firm Adidas.

Some internet users said they would stop buying Nike and will support local brands such as Li Ning and Anta, while others told Adidas to leave China.

Shares of Anta Sports Products Ltd jumped over 6% in Hong Kong on Thursday after issuing a statement saying it would continue to use cotton from Xinjiang. Li Ning Co's shares surged by more than 7%.

H&M YouTube Grab

State tabloid Global Times reported that Spain's Inditex , owner of Zara, had "quietly removed" a statement on Xinjiang cotton from its English and Spanish-language websites on Thursday.

Inditex did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Internet users also targeted the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global group that promotes sustainable cotton production which said in October it was suspending its approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-2021 season, citing concerns over human rights.

BCI members include Nike, Adidas, H&M and Japan's Fast Retailing.

"If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we'll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China," one internet user wrote.

Nike, Adidas and the BCI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In response to the furore, H&M said on Wednesday it respected Chinese consumers and that it was committed to long-term investment and development in China.

But by Thursday morning, H&M did not exist on some Chinese store locator maps. Searches for H&M stores on Baidu Maps yielded no results. The Swedish clothing retailer's official store on Alibaba's Tmall, an e-commerce platform, was inaccessible.

Photo of Black Americans Picking Cotton

At a daily media briefing at the Chinese foreign ministry, spokeswoman Hua Chunying, when asked about H&M, held up a photograph of Black Americans picking cotton.

"This was in the U.S. when Black slaves were forced to pick cotton in the fields," she said.

Hua then held up a second photograph of cotton fields in Xinjiang.

"More than 40% of the cotton in Xinjiang is harvested by machinery, so the alleged forced labour is non-existent."

Overnight, People's Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, rolled out a social media campaign in support of cotton sourced from Xinjiang.

The graphic "I support Xinjiang cotton" posted by the newspaper on the Twitter-like microblog Weibo has since attracted about 2.2 million likes.

Japanese retailer Muji, owned by Ryohin Keikaku Co, told the Global Times on Thursday that it is a user of Xinjiang cotton, winning praise from Chinese internet users, who lauded the firm's "survival instincts".