Recently, I wrote about the fact that many fashionable products consumed in the West are produced by forced Uyghur labor. Those who speak out pay a steep price, as Swedish clothing retailer H&M can attest.
Two weeks ago, H&M was Canceled in China after the Communist Youth League decried the company’s comments on forced labor in Xinjiang on Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform. The comments themselves dated from last year (March 2020). The online vitriol is likely in response to sanctions recently imposed by the European Union, the U.S., the U.K., and Canada on Chinese officials for human rights abuses. Earlier in March (2021), Newslines Institute for Strategy and Policy, an international independent organization, published a report showing that the Chinese government is committing genocide against Uyghurs as defined in the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Other measures were swiftly applied. Several of China’s online retail websites blocked users from going to H&M’s online store and Weibo users called for boycotting the physical store. Celebrities such as Song Quian and Huang Xuan withdrew from endorsement deals with H&M. That will hurt because H&M has over 400 stores in China, which China accounts for 5% of H&M’s revenue.
The editor-in-chief of China’s state newspaper, Global Times, warned that Western companies should be “highly cautious” and not “suppress China’s Xinjiang.”
H&M is committed to responsibly sourced products and forbids the use of forced labor in any country in its supply chain. Stores display a sign stating its commitment to responsible purchasing practices.
In response to the Chinese Youth League’s online attacks and its subsequent ban from China’s e-commerce site, H&M attempted to repair the damage by stating that its policies “did not represent any political position” and that H&M is “committed to long-term investment and development in China.” That said, the Statement on Due Diligence reads:
H&M Group is deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of forced labour and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). We strictly prohibit any type of forced labour in our supply chain, regardless of the country or region. If we discover and verify a case of forced labour at a supplier we work with, we will take immediate action and, as an ultimate consequence, look to terminate the business relationship. All our direct suppliers sign our Sustainability Commitment that clearly states our expectations with regards to forced labour and discrimination linked to religion or ethnicity, for their own operations as well as their supply chains…
XUAR is China’s largest cotton growing area, and up until now, our suppliers have sourced cotton from farms connected to Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in the region. As it has become increasingly difficult to conduct credible due diligence in the region, BCI has decided to suspend licensing of BCI cotton in XUAR. This means that cotton for our production will no longer be sourced from there. Furthermore, in collaboration with the industry and supply chain partners, we will continue our work to strengthen the traceability of cotton.
H&M is not the only business group that has taken action and faced attacks. It is a member of the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative, whose retail partners agree to their Base Code of labor practices. It is also a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, which works for sustainable and ethical cotton production. The Better Cotton Initiative suspended approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang. In response, a Chinese propagandist created an image called “Blood Cotton Initiative” with imagery of slaves working in cotton fields along with other imagery criticizing Western media. The image — not linked here because the image is in poor taste — went viral in China.
Several days later, H&M changed an online map of China after the Communist Youth League complained that the map incorrectly depicted the China-India border and several disputed territories in the South China Sea. The news report did not specify the disputed areas but other companies have been dinged by Chinese officials for leaving Taiwan off maps of China. China claims to own Taiwan, which regards itself as an independent country.
The pressure has not let up. On April 7, the BBC reported that Chinese censors have now started censoring Western clothing brands on television by blurring out the logos. Unfortunately for the production companies that must make these last-minute changes, Chinese youth love Western clothing brands.
If this is a public relations campaign, it isn’t working. The CCP continues to lose clout globally. As several business analysts have pointed out, these tactics are only going to hurt the Chinese people. Firms like H&M, where the Chinese market is only 5% of their annual revenue, can afford to take their supply lines out of China. But China’s manufacturing sector can less afford to lose Western businesses.
Better Cotton Initiative has removed their statement on Xinjiang. Journalist and China-watcher Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian noted that BCI has been pressured to remove its statement:
In late March, the Chinese state-affiliated Global Times ran a series of articles lambasting BCI for ceasing its Xinjiang operations.
On March 26, BCI’s Shanghai branch said that it had found no evidence of forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton industry. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Xinjiang statement removed from cotton watchdog website” at Axios
When she reached out to BCI, the organization’s spokesperson said that they would not be providing a statement at this time. “When asked in a follow-up email if BCI now believed there was no forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton industry and if BCI would be resuming operations there, Woodruff did not respond.”
The Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly aggressive in countering claims that Uyghurs are detained and forced to live and work in abject conditions. We will see whether other companies and organizations uphold their stance on forced labor or cave to the pressure.
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