Swedish multinational clothing retailer H&M is facing a backlash within China for not buying cotton produced in Xinjiang, as Beijing battles claims of genocide and forced labour in the region.
In a statement last year, H&M, the world’s second-biggest clothing retailer, said it did not source cotton from Xinjiang.
“We do not work with any garment manufacturing factories located in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, and we do not source products from this region,” the company said.
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Mainland Chinese media reported that H&M products were removed from all major Chinese e-commerce platforms, including JD, Taobao, and Pinduoduo. Taobao is owned by Alibaba which also owns the South China Morning Post.
Searches for H&M products on these platforms yielded no results on Wednesday.
H&M headquarters in Sweden did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
But H&M China said: “H&M Group has consistently upheld the principles of openness and transparency while managing our global supply chains, ensuring it respects our commitment to sustainable development as outlined by the OECD Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct, this does not represent any political position.”
China is H&M’s fourth-largest market and home to 520 of its stores, second only to the United States, which has 593.
China produces 22 per cent of the world’s cotton, of which 84 per cent comes from Xinjiang, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
The backlash against H&M came just a day after a flurry of sanctions between China and the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada over treatment of people from ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
In China, the Communist Youth League was quick to respond to H&M on social media platform Weibo, where it has more than 15 million followers.
“Defaming and boycotting Xinjiang’s cotton while hoping to make money off China? Don’t even dream about it!” the youth league said.
Xinhua also posted a commentary online saying H&M would suffer from its action.
In one popular Weibo post, an internet user said he resigned after reading the company’s statement.
“As a long-time employee, I am taking the initiative of resigning, bye bye H&M,” read the post, which was “liked” more than 200,000 times.
Xinjiang was also on the agenda in Alaska last week when top US officials took China to task over its human rights record. China’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi mounted a fiery defence, saying the United States was not qualified to be condescending when speaking to China.
Two of Yang’s phrases – “we Chinese people don’t buy it”, and “stop interfering in China’s internal politics” – became popular memes online.
On Wednesday, the youth league repurposed the style of the meme to say: “H&M take off your biased lenses and immediately stop spreading fake news. Xinjiang cotton doesn’t buy it.”
Some Chinese celebrities were also quick to cut ties with H&M. Actor Huang Xuan said on Wednesday that he had ended all business dealings with the Swedish clothing company.
“Huang Xuan and his team resolutely oppose any form of behaviour that defames and maligns China and human rights!” he said.
Chinese K-pop star Victoria Song, who shot to fame as part of Korean girl group F (x), also said on Wednesday that she was not associated in any way with H&M.
“The national interest is more important than anything, [Victoria Song] boycotts any behaviour that harms the reputation of China. She resolutely opposes these actions that use commercial means as a way to malign and humiliate the country and its people.”
The H&M saga is the latest in a string of disputes that foreign multinationals have encountered in China in recent years.
South Korea’s decision to allow the US to install an anti-missile system known as THAAD resulted in South Korea’s highly popular K-pop bands being frozen out of the Chinese market.
South Korean supermarket chains like Lotte were also targeted by protests and vandalism, forcing the company out of China.
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