When international corporations advocate human rights, they usually receive recognition and sometimes benefit from it. In China, however, the reverse is true: after Nike distanced itself from labor camps in China, it drew the wrath of numerous Chinese social media users. The popular Chinese actor Wang Yibo also ended his contract as a representative for Nike, as the agency said. He wanted to “firmly oppose any words and actions” that “pollute” China.
Nike wrote on the Twitter-like platform Weibo that the company was “concerned” about reports of forced labor by the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province and that it would not use any cotton from the region. A statement from the US company on the Shitstorm in the social media is pending. It is also unclear how large the propaganda machine of the Communist Party is in the campaign.
Party newspaper denounces other fashion brands
The Adidas rival is not the only company suffering from the dispute over the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The youth organization of the ruling Communist Party found a message from H&M about a year old on social media, in which the Swedish fashion company also expressed concern about the conditions in the camps. The state party newspaper, the Global Times, again listed that Burberry, Adidas and New Balance had also made “restrictive remarks” about cotton from Xinjiang in the past.
The dispute over the political statements is delicate for the companies. Foreign companies whose governments are critical of Taiwan or Tibet are always under great pressure. In the past, companies had often adapted to the Chinese line and avoided provocative advertising, for example, in order to gain access to China’s densely populated market. With the Uyghurs things could be different, because the Western corporations are under pressure in their home countries to distance themselves from grievances – or to stop producing there.
The Uyghurs in Xinjiang are now systematically suppressed and monitored. More than a million people from this Muslim minority are imprisoned in re-education camps. The “China Cables” have brought frightening details about this gulag system to light. The Beijing government denies allegations of repression and harassment and claims to promote economic development and fight radicalism.
H&M announced last March that it would no longer use cotton from Xinjiang. The company relied on an assessment of the Better Cotton Initiative, which advocates environmental and labor standards – it is “increasingly difficult” to trace the production. In September, H&M announced that it would end its collaboration with a Chinese manufacturer that was accused of using forced labor but had nothing to do with the Swedish brand.
Distancing is understood as a personal attack
In China, such distancing is seen as a personal attack: “How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then smash China’s pot?” Asked Chinese state television this week. Actor Huang Xuan and Song Qian, a singer and actress also known as Victoria Song and formerly a member of the Korean pop group f (x), announced that they would end their advertising contracts with H&M. Actress Tang Songyun announced that she is ending her collaboration with Nike.
In January, the USA had gone a little further than the companies. The country imposed a ban on cotton from Xinjiang, which otherwise produces much of the product important to the fashion brands. The Chinese sports shoe brand ANTA has now announced that it is withdrawing from the global Better Cotton Initiative for sustainable cotton.
An estimated ten million Uyghurs live in China, most of them in Xinjiang. The majority of them are of Islamic faith and feel economically, politically and culturally oppressed by the ruling Han Chinese. After they came to power in 1949, the communists incorporated the former East Turkestan into China. The Beijing government accuses Uighur groups of separatism and terrorism.