The Chinese government has reacted strongly to the concerns expressed by H&M and Nike regarding cotton from the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The production of this cotton allegedly involved forced labour by the Uyghur minority. The repercussions are severe: H&M has fully disappeared from Chinese e-commerce platforms.
Uighur forced labour
The treatment of the Uyghurs in the north-western region of Xinjiang has been a controversial topic for quite some time. The Chinese government pursues a policy of ‘sinification’ – which you could describe as making the local population Chinese. The local population is currently autonomous, but mainly on paper. According to various NGOs and journalistic investigations by the BBC and others, this policy is accompanied by repression of the local population, leading to forced labour.
This forced labour is allegedly also carried out on the cotton plantations of the region. That news has now reached the radar of several large clothing multinationals. Nike and H&M, in particular, expressed their concerns. And now they are paying for it. Although the timing is remarkable: both companies made their statements last year, but as several Western countries are now imposing sanctions on China, those statements have resurfaced.
This has led to a furious campaign on Chinese social media, where people are calling to boycott the companies involved. Various Chinese celebrities have cut all ties with Nike and/or H&M. In the meantime, there is hardly a trace of H&M on the leading Chinese e-commerce platforms (which in China are very closely linked to social media platforms). Nike is also in China’s crosshairs but seems less affected than H&M for the time being.
The fashion giant is trying to keep things under control: H&M’s Chinese branch posted a message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, although it seems to be beating around the bush. The company said it would “respect Chinese consumers as always” and “not take a political stance”. It is, therefore, a delicate exercise for H&M, for whom China is an important market both for buying raw materials and selling its clothes.