H&M and Nike among brands facing China's wrath over Xinjiang cotton ban

Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

H&M, Nike and Adidas are among big brand names facing the wrath of China for cancelling contracts over human rights concerns in the north-western region of Xinjiang.

The Swedish retailer announced earlier this month it would stop buying cotton from Xinjiang saying it was “deeply concerned” about reports of forced labour there.

Nike faced fury on Chinese social media after the company issued a statement saying it was “concerned about reports of forced labour”.

China's leading Communist Party newspaper the Global Times accused Burberry, Adidas, Nike and New Balance of having made “cutting remarks” about Xinjiang cotton as early as two years ago.

The move sparked outrage in China and prompted celebrities including singer and actor Wang Yibo announced they were breaking endorsement contracts with H&M and Nike.

Consumers were also encouraged to boycott the brands.

The Chinese government has been accused of arbitrarily detaining Uyghur people and other Muslim-majority ethnic groups in Xinjiang province Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

In a statement announcing he was quitting as a Nike brand ambassador, pop star Wang Yibo said he “firmly resists any words and actions that pollute China.”

Others including singer and actress Song Qian, a former member of Korean pop group f(x) who also is known as Victoria Song, and actor Huang Xuan announced they would end endorsement contracts with H&M. Actress Tang Songyun said she was breaking ties with Nike.

Western brands usually tread carefully with China over sensitive issues such as Hong Kong and Tibet.

But the situation in Xinjiang, where more than a million people, most of them from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have been confined to work camps, according to foreign researchers and governments, has prompted vocal condemnation from the West.

Beijing denies mistreating them, insisting it is trying to promote economic development and stamp out radicalism.

  • ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy reports in 2018 on the Muslim families "torn apart" by Chinese "re-education camps":

Earlier this week, the UK, European Union, the United States and Canada jointly announced travel and financial sanctions on four senior Chinese officials blamed for abuses in Xinjiang.

Beijing retaliated by saying it would impose unspecified penalties against European legislators and a German researcher who has publicised information about the detention camps.

H&M’s statement last March cited a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes environmental and labour standards, to stop licensing Xinjiang cotton because it was “increasingly difficult” to trace how it was produced.

In September, H&M announced it would stop working with a Chinese manufacturer that was accused of using forced labour in a unit unrelated to the Swedish brand.

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

A Uighur woman and children sit on a motor-tricycle after school. Credit: Andy Wong/AP

China’s official outrage has focused on Europe amid tension with Washington over trade disputes and accusations of Chinese spying and technology theft.

“How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then smash China’s pot?” state television said in a commentary on Wednesday.

On its social media account, H&M Group said the company “doesn’t represent any political standpoint” and “respects Chinese consumers.”

The company said it deals with 350 Chinese manufacturers to make products that “comply with the principles of sustainable development.” H&M said it “is committed to long-term investment and development in China.”

On Thursday, H&M products were missing from China’s two most popular online retailers, Alibaba Group’s TMall and JD.com.

News reports said they were removed due to public criticism over its Xinjiang statement.

Spokespeople for Alibaba and JD didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.