International brands in the fashion world were the target of a big boycott in China last week. Comments against Nike, Adidas, Burberry and their products flooded social media and brands have also been rejected by celebrities and digital influencers, who in China have a more important role than in the West to boost sales. But the big target of the boycott campaign was the H&M clothing store chain. The Swedish multinational was partially banned from the Chinese internet after companies in the digital sector erased mention of the brand on maps, e-commerce sites, mobility and delivery applications.
The Chinese reaction came after a statement from H&M – and other companies – expressed concern about forced labor in the cotton fields in China’s Xinjiang province and said it would no longer buy the raw material there to manufacture its products. That statement had been published last year, but recently went viral, two days after the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union announced sanctions against Chinese officials over the provincial government’s treatment of Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority.
“The era of bullying is over,” Xu Guixiang, a spokesman for the Xinjiang government, said at a news conference on Monday. “China is no longer the China of 1840, and the era when the Chinese people suffered from the hegemony and bullying of the great powers will never return,” he continued, referring to the time when China signed unequal treaties with powers Westerners. “We expect companies like H&M to be more perceptive and to distinguish right from wrong,” he said, also saying that multinational companies should understand that “the baton of sanctions” against Xinjiang would harm the companies themselves.
China is a gigantic market and an increasingly important sales center for individual clothing and consumer goods brands. For H&M, for example, China was the third largest sales market between December and February, accounting for 6% of overall revenue. But Western companies that invest there often find themselves in an uncomfortable position when confronted with actions by the Beijing authoritarian regime: on sensitive issues, such as forced labor in Xinjiang, they can be boycotted inside or outside China, depending on how they operate. position.
After the negative repercussion in China, H&M’s chief executive, Helena Helmersson, revealed that 20 of the company’s approximately 500 stores in the country had to close their doors. However, she gave no further details about the impact of this boycott on Chinese sales and supply chain.
Helmersson also said that the company remains committed to the Chinese market and that “it is dedicated to regaining the trust of our customers, colleagues and business partners in China”. But he noted that H&M wants to “be a responsible buyer, in China and elsewhere, and now we are building forward-looking strategies and actively working on the next steps with regard to the supply of materials.”
China produces 22% of the cotton used in the world and 84% of this volume comes from farms in Xinjiang. In addition, China is an important player in the global textile industry, both in terms of volume produced and exported, as well as in the diversity and technical capacity of its producers.
In the past, however, after reports indicating forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton fields began to emerge more frequently in the media, the raw material chain in the region began to be under more pressure internationally. In April, the headquarters of the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that promotes better standards in cotton cultivation in 21 countries, announced that it has suspended its activities in Xinjiang, China, due to concerns about the prevalence of labor abuses in the region. It was from there that many international brands stopped buying cotton produced in the region, issuing the declarations that, almost a year later, motivated the boycott of H&M and other brands.
In addition, last December, the United States decided to block the purchase of cotton and cotton products from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), one of the largest manufacturers in the region.
Despite the expansion of mechanized harvesting in the Xinjiang cotton farms, mainly in the large fields of the XPCC, there are Chinese reports indicating that there is still a great need for labor for activities such as weeding the crops, among others. manual activities.
International reports made it possible to identify evidence of forced labor in the region. Ethnic minorities, such as Uighurs, Tibetans and Kazakhs, are the targets of a Chinese central government program aimed at reducing poverty in the country and reducing the threat of separatism in western China. By transforming these minorities into workers who follow the values of the communist government, China is able to “solve” these two “problems”.
With these goals in mind, Chinese officials approach minorities, offering them work, mostly in factories, but there are also reports that some are sent to work in cotton fields. When the proposal is rejected, pressure from regime officials increases. These programs have quotas to be met and families that refuse work can be penalized by local authorities. The people who end up giving in, before being directed to the new job, go through training and indoctrination courses.
“The main objective of the poverty reduction program is to place ethnic minorities in industrial work, not in agricultural production. There is, however, the risk of forced labor in cotton production and ginning in Xinjiang, which is impossible to fully assess today due to the lack of free access to the region, ”noted a study by think tank American CSIS.
The Chinese government denies this effort to control ethnic minorities in the country and accuses the West of promoting a smear campaign against China to undermine the region’s security and stability. The Better Cotton Initiative division in the country distanced itself from the statement made by the headquarters in Geneva, stating that it found no evidence that forced labor is taking place in the Xinjiang cotton fields.
In a report broadcast by a Chinese state broadcaster last week, Wu Yan, head of the BCI in Shanghai, said the organization had conducted several rigorous inspections and did not identify a single case of forced labor.
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