“It’s a wake-up call”: H&M faces backlash in China after taking a year-long stand against forced labor

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People walk past the H&M flagship store in Beijing on March 25, 2021.

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The headline of the Beijing Daily was as blunt as it was shrill: “Large-scale pulling off the shelves for H&M!” How many brands still have the illusion of eating Chinese food while breaking the Chinese pot? “

Almost immediately, digital shelves were empty of products from the Swedish clothing store, with the brand disappearing from China’s biggest e-commerce sites, including Taobao and JD.com. A tidal wave of social media posts condemned H&M for its one-year stance against forced labor and its commitment to avoiding the use of products from China’s Xinjiang region, which produces one-fifth of the world’s cotton and was accused of forcing ethnic minorities to take it in hand.

China denies any abuse, and a statement by H&M sparked a noisy public outcry after it spread widely on national social media this week, with a single post from an account attracting more than 120 million views and commentators turning mocking H & M’s “suicide” in the Chinese market.

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Soon, the online crowd turned against other brands that publicly spoke out against forced labor in statements about Xinjiang: Nike, Adidas, Fila, Gap, New Balance, Under Armor, and others.

It was one of China’s most scathing criticisms of foreign brands, an almost certain retaliation campaign to draw financial blood and instill terror in companies that now have to choose between ethical choices regarding the use of forced labor and the preservation of their financial results in the vast Chinese market.

“This is a wake-up call, not only for H&M but for all companies,” said Shaun Rein, consumer behavior specialist and founder of the China Market Research Group. “Because what are you doing?” Refuse to boycott slave labor, and the United States and other Western consumers will “boycott you.” Speak out against forced labor in China and “the Chinese will do it.”

The Chinese are “proud that China is resuming its place as a superpower, and they don’t like criticism, because they believe that [it’s] unfounded, ”Rein said.

In a wave of online condemnation, Chinese rapper NineOne deleted a song titled Puma – a reference to the sportswear brand – from four years ago, saying it opposes any threat to China’s national interests. Another rapper, SeanT, has publicly stated that a mention of “Nike” in one of his songs was, in fact, a reference to fake shoes.

Influencers have publicly ditched Western brands and posted pictures of themselves posing with Chinese alternatives. National sportswear companies Li Ning and Anta on Thursday posted gains of 10.74% and 8.4% in their stock price.

Chinese government ministries also rushed the sentences. “Xinjiang’s pure and crisp cotton does not allow any force to discredit it,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said.

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“The Chinese people are very open and friendly, but they will not be offended,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “One thing is clear: Chinese people will not accept that some companies try to do negative things in China while making money here. “

Political anger in China – along with state propaganda stoking consumer sentiment – has already shattered the profits of Norwegian salmon farmers, South Korean carmakers and K-pop artists, Australian winemakers, and, for a time, farmers. Canadian canola growers.

But the far-reaching retaliation against foreign clothiers indicates a “huge and massive risk” for foreign brands in China, said Elijah Whaley, chief marketing officer of ParkLu, a marketing platform for key thought leaders, or KOL. .

“We have already had KOLs who dropped out in collaboration with Nike and H&M. And I’m sure there are more to come, ”he said. On issues deemed sensitive by Beijing – a list that is growing longer and longer – brands must increasingly decide whether they “are more afraid of Western reactions than of Chinese reactions”.

Some foreign brands have openly acknowledged using Uyghur workers. Skechers, for example, buys shoes from a factory where, according to other workers at The Globe and Mail, Uyghurs are brought in through programs run by the government and separated from other employees. Skechers confirmed that the factory, Dongguan Luzhou Shoes, employs Uyghurs, but said it carried out two audits last year and came away satisfied.

“None of these audits revealed any evidence of the use of forced labor, whether by Uyghurs or any other ethnic or religious group, and neither did the audits raise any further concerns about general conditions. working, ”Skechers said in a statement. The Uyghurs of the factory “are employed under the same conditions as all the other employees of the factory and in particular as regards working conditions, remuneration, promotions, etc.”

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The issue of cotton production is particularly cloudy.

Chinese authorities have denied the allegations of forced labor, saying people sign labor contracts and get paid for their work.

But at the end of last year, the Better Cotton Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to improving working conditions and the environmental impact of cotton production, suspended the approval of cotton from the Xinjiang due to human rights concerns.

In January, the United States banned all products made with cotton from Xinjiang, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection saying it found a series of indicators of forced labor, including debt bondage, restriction of movement , isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions.

The Canadian government has also banned the importation of all products made by forced labor.

During Xinjiang’s harvest season, the fields ripple with milky drops of cotton, which are picked and transported on trucks stacked with the harvest. Authorities have sought to promote mechanization, but 70 percent of Xinjiang’s cotton fields are still hand-picked, a labor-intensive effort.

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In two important cotton counties in Aksu Prefecture in Xinjiang, pickers were recruited from other parts of China. By 2020, however, those jobs “were all taken over by the region,” according to a government report. He said local officials ensured the signing of labor contracts and set up recreation rooms and recreation areas for workers in government facilities and called for an end to workers sleeping on the floor, outdoor housing and drinking water and substandard food. He also said that local cadres should “actively conduct ideological education” during the harvest.

In recent years, Chinese authorities have jailed large numbers of Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority groups in Xinjiang for forced political indoctrination and vocational training. The government claims these people have graduated, but former detainees and relatives have said people leaving indoctrination camps are regularly forced to sign employment contracts.

The Chinese authorities, however, accuse critics of lying about the existence of forced labor.

With H&M, China has shown that it will punish them for it.

Beijing’s message is “we expect you to make a choice,” with the hope that companies “will continue to use cotton that could have been produced through forced labor,” said Bjorn Jerden, director of the National Center. Swedish for China at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Mr. Jerden was recently sanctioned by China in retaliation for European Union sanctions against senior officials in Xinjiang.

For companies that don’t comply, he said, “What China is basically saying is if you follow that line, it will hurt your bottom line.”

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