Sharp Power: China Punishes Sweden’s H&M for Objecting to Uyghur Slave Labor

People walk out from a store of Swedish clothing giant H&M in Beijing on March 25, 2021. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

China’s latest exercise of “sharp power” – using economic leverage to impose its political agenda on the free world – targets H&M, a Swedish fashion company. The clothing company was surprised to find itself threatened with boycotts and banned by major Chinese e-commerce platforms Wednesday over months-old social media posts expressing concern about China’s use of Uyghur Muslim slave labor in Xinjiang province.

The H&M Group, one of the largest clothing retailers in the world, posted a statement last year that said it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

“We strictly prohibit any type of forced labor in our supply chain, regardless of the country or region. If we discover and verify a case of forced labor at a supplier we work with, we will take immediate action and, as an ultimate consequence, look to terminate the business relationship,” the statement said, citing the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

H&M’s statement was duly noted by the international press last year but, for some reason, the Chinese Communist Youth League, a group linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), dug up the months-old document this week and made it the focus of a social media campaign against the Swedish company.

“Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while trying to make a profit in China? Wishful thinking!” the Communist youth group declared, summoning a tidal wave of anger and boycott threats on Weibo, China’s version of the banned Twitter microblogging platform. Weibo users dismissed H&M clothes as “rags” and poured over a billion clicks into a hashtag that translates to “I Support Xinjiang Cotton.”

Chinese media began publishing reports of deserted H&M stores in popular shopping districts, abandoned by angry customers. An H&M store in Shanghai reportedly hired extra security to deal with potential protests, while its nervous employees asked reporters not to take photos of the store.

“After seeing H&M’s statement, I will not buy their products. They want to do business in China while insulting the Chinese at the same time. How can they expect us to buy their clothes or support them?” said one Beijing shopper quoted by the state-run Global Times on Thursday.

“They might have been manipulated by the West, but whatever the reasons are, I choose China’s Lining,” said another, naming a Chinese apparel brand.

The Global Times quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying insisting that forced labor allegations were “pure lies fabricated by some anti-China organizations,” and warning that refusing to buy Xinjiang cotton would be a “loss” for foreign manufacturers.

China’s CCP-controlled “private businesses” stepped in to become the tip of the sharp power spear, with a cascade of online retailers shutting down H&M’s digital storefronts, beginning with the giant Alibaba e-commerce company.

Digital and physical boycotts of H&M escalated Thursday and expanded to other companies that have expressed concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang, including Nike, Adidas, Gap, New Balance, and Zara, as reported by ABC News:

By Thursday morning Nike and H&M each lost two of their Chinese brand ambassadors. Chinese actor Huang Xuan announced that he was terminating his relationship with H&M and said that he “firmly opposed any attempt to discredit the country.” Pop idol Wang Yibo followed suit and dissolved his relationship with Nike on Thursday.

Searches for H&M began to yield no results by Wednesday evening on Chinese e-commerce sites like T-mall, JD.com and Pinduoduo. Wuika Times Square, a mall in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, reportedly demanded its H&M outlet to remain closed until the company “makes a solemn apology to the people of Xinjiang.”

Another Chinese entertainer, pop singer Victoria Song, denounced H&M on Thursday and announced she would no longer work for the company after designing and modeling clothes for them last year.

“The country’s interests are more important than anything else. We are firmly counteracting all stigmatization against China, and firmly disagree with using this kind of business strategies to defame and slander the country and its citizens,” Song’s studio said.

Chinese apparel companies – including the aforementioned Lining – are ostentatiously increasing their orders for Xinjiang cotton to demonstrate their “patriotism.” As of Thursday morning, at least one Chinese apparel brand, Anta sportswear, has formally withdrawn from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the global non-profit organization that has been asking manufacturers not to purchase cotton harvested with forced labor.

ABC noted some of these Chinese boycott campaigns are quoting from the tirade flung by top diplomat Yang Jiechi at a stunned U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska last week, an encounter seen by the CCP as a tremendous propaganda success and humiliation of the new American administration.

Yang’s key points were that America lacks the moral standing to criticize China for human rights abuses and lacks the economic or diplomatic power to back its criticism with effective action. Beating H&M and other foreign companies into submission with sharp power will be a potent means for the CCP to underline those talking points: the West cannot force China to stop using forced labor, but China can force Western companies to shut up and buy cotton picked by Uyghur slaves.

The pressure campaign appears to be working. H&M posted a Weibo statement Wednesday night backing down from its previous concerns and insisting the company “does not represent any political position.”

“H&M Group purchases more sustainable cotton through a globally certified third party. The purpose is to support cotton farmers around the world to adopt more sustainable methods to grow cotton. H&M Group does not purchase cotton directly from any supplier. H&M Group respects Chinese consumers as always. We are committed to long-term investment and development in China,” the company told its Chinese customers.

The Chinese Communists have a great deal of leverage to use against foreign companies. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) noted Wednesday that China produces 22 percent of the world’s cotton, 84 percent of China’s cotton production comes from Xinjiang province, and H&M has 520 stores at stake in China. Only the United States, with 593 stores, is a bigger market for H&M products.

The SCMP noted the CCP’s youth league pounced on H&M, savaging the company for a year-old statement about forced labor, just one day after the U.S., European Union, Britain, and Canada imposed sanctions against CCP officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and China retaliated with sanctions of its own.

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