The Communist Party in China is pushing for a boycott of H&M over the company’s pledge not to source cotton from Xinjiang, where ethnic minorities were allegedly forced to work in cotton production.
The Communist Youth League, a youth division of the party, attacked the Swedish fast fashion brand in a series of posts on the microblogging site Weibo on Wednesday, accusing it for lying about rights abuse in Xinjiang.
“It is making up lies and boycotting Xinjiang cotton, and it wants to make money in China in the meantime?” the youth league said, prompting a wave of anger at the fashion brand. “Wishful thinking!”
A number of international brands have vowed to stop sourcing from Xinjiang, which produces about one fifth of the world’s cotton, over allegations of forced labor in the region. The government has run a mass internment program that detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
State media launched the attack on H&M just as the government was hitting back against new sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada for rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. has since January banned imports of all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang.
Beijing says it had only operated “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang, which equipped ethnic minorities with job skills and alleviated them out of poverty, and the allegations of abuse were made up by anti-China politicians and scholars.
“This is not the way to deal with Xinjiang,” a meme shared by the Communist Youth League says. It was derived from a quote by senior diplomat Yang Jiechi, who told U.S. Secretary of the State Antony Blinken in a combative meeting last week that “this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people.”
On Wednesday, the search term “H&M” generated zero result on Taobao, China’s most popular shopping site, while the brand’s online store is no longer accessible. Taobao’s parent company Alibaba did not immediately respond to a request for comments.
H&M’s former ambassadors in China, celebrities Huang Xuan and Victoria Song, both issued statements, saying they had stopped working with the brand. The statements, trending on Weibo on Wednesday, said the stars were against acts aimed at smearing China.
H&M did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some internet users also called for a boycott of other brands that pledged to avoid using Xinjiang cotton, including Uniqlo, Nike and Gap. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a non-profit group that gives sustainability accreditation to businesses, also came under fire for stopping licensing activities in Xinjiang.
The state-backed boycott calls are pushing apparel companies to pick a side, between doing businesses in China and meeting the ethical requirements from many overseas consumers and rights groups.
Following the backlash, Hong Kong-listed Chinese sportswear company Anta Sports announced on Weibo it would quit BCI. “We have always been buying and using cotton from Chinese production regions, including Xinjiang cotton,” the company said.
The Chinese government has on multiple occasions pushed consumer boycott calls to pressure overseas companies and governments.
Beijing cut the number of tour groups to South Korea and banned Korean cultural products after Seoul decided to deploy a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system in 2016. State media have also encouraged the boycotts of companies that marked self-ruled Taiwan island as a country. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its own territories.
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