Not too many customers are seen inside one of H&M’s 33 stores in Shanghai. Photo: WeChat

Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M has shut at least one of its shops in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far-west Xinjiang autonomous region, as local pressure mounts against Western criticism and sanctions against Beijing’s policies towards the region’s Muslim Uighur population.

In other Chinese cities, H&M’s stores are reportedly devoid of customers while patriotic protesters have spraypainted jingoistic graffiti on H&M shopfronts in certain locations. The brand’s outlets appeared not to show up on Apple Maps and Baidu Maps searches in China on Friday. H&M currently operates nearly 200 stores in China.

The fashion brand was singled out this week by Chinese state media and Communist Party organs, including the Communist Youth League, for its decision to stop sourcing cotton and other raw textile fabrics from Xinjiang due to alleged forced labor and human right abuses against Uighur Muslims in the region. 

The boycott is spreading far and wide among Chinese consumers despite H&M vowing its “long-standing respect” for China. Now, sportswear giants Nike and Adidas and Japan’s Uniqlo are also being targeted for boycotts as news emerges they too have cut Xinjiang-based partners from their supply chains. 

H&M is facing a widespread boycott in China, one of its largest markets and sources of revenue. Photo: WeChat

Some suggest high-street luxury brands like Burberry could be next to unravel among Chinese consumers as they face similar recriminations for falling in line with the West on Xinjiang. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are closing ranks against Beijing for its treatment of the minority Uighurs, where as many as a million are reportedly held in “vocational” camps the US has likened to “genocide.” 

Many brands find themselves tangled in the simmering row after stepping up their compliance with Western regulations and Xinjiang-specific sanctions as early as the second half of 2020. 

Many of the brands have seen a strong rebound in sales in China with the nation’s economy stirring back to life in the second half of last year, driven in part by Chinese middle-class spending on brand name clothes. But those strong sales could come undone if the boycotts spread and endure in the weeks ahead.

That seems possible as Hong Kong and Taiwanese brand ambassadors, including local movie stars, seek to sever their endorsement contracts amid the nationalistic fervor, apparently out of fear for their future popularity, careers and earnings in China.

Dilraba Dilmurat, an Urumqi-born Uighur actress who has a growing cult following in China, announced the termination of all her cooperation with Adidas; Eason Chan, Hong Kong’s foremost Cantopop singer, has also cut ties with the German brand out of fear of irking his mainland Chinese fans.   

Meanwhile, Gao Feng, a spokesperson for the Chinese Commerce Ministry, hit back at accusations carried in Western media on Thursday that China was politicizing business operations. Gao said Chinese consumers would turn their backs on Western brands that sought to politicize Xinjiang and that the boycott blowback was of their own making.

At the same time, Gao reiterated that Beijing still encouraged Western business investment in Xinjiang. 

A worker inside a cotton mill in southern Xinjiang. Chinese state media say not too much manual labor, let alone forced labor, is involved in the region’s cotton production. Photo: Xinhua

Led by China Central Television and CGTN, Chinese state media is launching a coordinated public relations campaign aimed at home and abroad that has featured select Uighur owners and employees at cotton plantations and mills in Xinjiang in media interviews. 

The China News Service cited Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir as saying that there was not much manual labor involved in the region’s cotton production, let alone “forced labor,” since the region’s agricultural production has long ago been modernized and mechanized.

About 70% of the 24.2 million hectares of cotton farmland was harvested by modern machinery and Xinjiang’s total output hit 5.2 million tons in 2020, according to Zakir. Cotton production is a staple income for about 7 million farmers there, especially for Uighurs living in ethnically mixed agrarian counties scattered across southern Xinjiang, he said.  

Chung Kwok-pan, a Hong Kong lawmaker representing the city’s textile and garment industry, told reporters that consumers may have to dig deeper into their pockets when buying fast-fashion products if all Xinjiang cotton was banned in the West, as the higher cost of sourcing alternatives from other producing countries would likely be passed on to customers. 

The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times reported on Friday that West-led sanctions and boycotts on Xinjiang cotton started at the end of last year when the Switzerland-based Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an industrial association pooling most global fashion brands, decided to revoke its certification for several producers in Xinjiang.

Farmers from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps start the spring ploughing. Photo: AFP

BCI’s Shanghai representative office said in a statement that the decision to suspend the membership of some producers was aimed at guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of its projects. 

The Global Times alleged that human rights were merely a pretext as the US and wider West sought to take aim at Xinjiang’s cotton industry, a major pillar of the region’s local economy, at a time American cotton producers were “losing out in the competition.”

Hu Xijin, the newspaper’s chief editor known for channeling top leader’s unspoken thoughts, opined on his blog that while Chinese consumers had every right to punish brands for their insults and insolence, government agencies should refrain from becoming a “cheerleader” in the Chinese people’s tirades against foreign brands to show the West the blowback was “genuine, spontaneous, not whipped up by the government.” 

Hu also urged against reading too much into the Chinese people’s wrath and that moving forward China should let the market decide the fate of the Western companies, as any imposed penalities or sanctions may expose China to further Western stigmatization of Chinese business practices.