The fashion retailer H&M is facing a potential boycott by millions of consumers in China after a statement by the company expressing deep concerns over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang stirred a social media storm this week.
The statement, which can be found on the website of the Swedish retailer, was posted last September after growing global scrutiny around use of Uyghur forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China.
In it, H&M said that it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethno-religious minorities” in Xinjiang and that it had ended sourcing cotton from growers in the region.
More than eight months later, and in the wake of sanctions by Western countries against China for its treatment of Uyghurs, H&M is now facing an angry online backlash from Chinese consumers. The outrage has been stoked by comments from celebrities and groups like the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.
“Want to make money in China while spreading false rumors and boycotting Xinjiang cotton? Wishful thinking!” the group said in a post, echoing one of the People’s Liberation Army’s statements that called H&M’s statement “ignorant and arrogant.”
By Wednesday evening, at least three major Chinese e-commerce platforms — Pinduoduo, Jingdong and Tmall — had removed H&M from search results and withdrawn its products from sale, underscoring the pressures faced by foreign companies doing business in China while navigating political and cultural debates ranging from the country’s sovereignty to its checkered human rights record.
On Wednesday night, H&M China responded with a post on the Sina Weibo microblogging site, saying that the company did not “represent any political position.”
“H&M Group respects Chinese consumers as always,” the statement said. “We are committed to long-term investment and development in China.”
H&M is the world’s second-largest fashion retailer by sales, and China is its fourth-biggest market.
On Monday the European Union, United States, Britain and Canada announced sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs, in Xinjiang. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the region, where authorities have used coercive labor programs and mass internment to remold as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities into model workers obedient to the Communist Party.
State broadcaster CCTV criticized H&M, and said that it was “a miscalculation to try to play a righteous hero.” H&M, it said, “will definitely pay a heavy price for its wrong action.”
Claire Fu contributed reporting.
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