After H&M, Nike feels Chinese social media heat over Xinjiang

China Xinjiang Foreign Brands

Beijing's umbrage against Western sanctions over alleged abuses of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province swept Chinese social media Thursday, with users ostracizing further global clothing and footwear brands.

State media on Wednesday lashed out against what they called H&M's "lies" and "ulterior motives", while a department store in Xinjiang's Urumqi city demanded an apology from the company in a statement on Thursday.

H&M had previously said in a statement it was "deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor" and that it did not source products from Xinjiang.

H&M was targeted first. The sportswear companies were the latest to be caught up in a backlash prompted by a government call to stop foreign brands from tainting China's name as internet users found statements they had made in the past on Xinjiang.

Nike and Adidas came under fire on Chinese social media on Thursday after Beijing's propaganda offensive against Swedish fashion brand H&M sparked by the company's expression of concern about labour conditions in Xinjiang.

"Want to make money in China while spreading false rumors and boycotting Xinjiang cotton?"

Beijing hit back with retaliatory sanctions on European lawmakers, scholars and institutions.

An Inditex webpage stating that the company was highly concerned about reports alleging social and labour malpractice in various supply chains among ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang was live on March 24, a Google cache showed, but now appears to be unavailable.

Global brands are often consumed by PR crises in China after touching politically-sensitive subjects.

But those remarks did little to stem the growing anger in China.

Social media posts also mentioned the Japanese and U.S. brands Uniqlo and Gap but it was unclear whether the people posting messages were private citizens or government plants online. Alibaba didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

H&M China said it respected Chinese consumers and that it was committed to long-term investment and development in China.

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A loss of sales in China, the only major economy where consumer spending has rebounded to above pre-pandemic levels, can be especially painful at a time when USA and European demand is weak.

It also cited the brand Zara as having expressed a "zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor". Chinese state television had asked in a commentary on Wednesday.

In January, Washington imposed a ban on imports of cotton from Xinjiang, a major supplier to clothing producers for Western markets.

In September, H&M announced it would stop working with a Chinese manufacturer accused of using forced labour.

Inditex did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. M&S said in a statement at the time that 100 per cent of the cotton for M&S clothing is "sustainably sourced and M&S is already one of the few retailers that does not work with any supplier in or source from Xinjiang".

United Kingdom online fashion retailer Boohoo Group Plc has forbid suppliers from using cotton from the Xinjiang region, and the company is considering asking them to provide certificates that they aren't doing so, Andrew Reaney, the company's head of ethical compliance, said in an interview.

Companies usually apologize and change websites or advertising to maintain access to China, one of the biggest global markets.

Reaney told a parliamentary inquiry in November that Boohoo was shocked by what has been happening in Xinjiang, and all its suppliers confirmed they don't have links to the region.

Chinese celebrities who previously represented H&M issued statements saying they no longer have any ties with it, adding they oppose "attempts to smear China". Celebrities including Wang Yibo, a popular singer and actor, announced they were breaking endorsement contracts with H&M and Nike.

And Chinese companies like Xtep International Holdings Ltd., China's third-largest sportwear maker, are making it clear where they stand.

The pop star Wang's announcement that he was quitting as a Nike "brand ambassador" didn't mention Xinjiang.

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