Western fashion brands like Nike and H&M were increasingly called for boycotts in China as Beijing, with increasing ferocity, pushed back against allegations of human rights abuses against the country’s Uighur Muslim minority.
The United States announced in January that it would cease all cotton imports from China’s Xinjiang region – a world leader in the supply of the material – due to forced labor concerns, while major retailers had previously issued statements expressing their concerns.
These corporate statements resurfaced on Chinese social media and met with anger following the new Western sanctions earlier this week against officials in charge of the northwestern region.
State-controlled media and online users criticized the two brands with the German sportswear giant Adidas and the American brand Tommy Hilfiger even among those who come under fire.
“For companies reaching the bottom line of our country, the answer is very clear: don’t buy!” China Central Television said on its social media account.
Many users also joined calls for a boycott, urging local retailers to carry domestic stocks instead.
The hashtag #ISupportXJCotton – created by the state people’s newspaper – generated more than 3 million likes on the Chinese social media platform Weibo as of Friday.
The fallout continued offline as well, with Chinese celebrities quickly distancing themselves from the brands and tearing up advertising deals.
Popular actor Wang Yibo terminated his contract with Nike, his agency said in a statement posted on Weibo on Thursday.
And the luxury fashion brand Burberry has removed its iconic plaid design from the clothing of the characters in the popular video game “Honor of Kings”, according to a post on the game’s official Weibo account.
A Hong Kong lawmaker said she would no longer buy Burberry products.
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The backlash seemed to begin when the Communist Party’s Youth League drew attention on Wednesday to a statement originally made by Swedish company H&M last year.
It also prompted users to search for previously published testimony from other overseas retailers in Xinjiang.
The original statement by the H&M group said it was “deeply concerned about reports from civil society organizations and media containing allegations of forced labor and discrimination against ethno-religious minorities in Xinjiang.”
The company said Thursday that “at this point we have nothing more to share,” referring NBC News to the statement.
The Nike statement is undated and reads: “We are concerned about reports of forced labor in and related to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Nike does not source any products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they do not use textiles or spun yarn Region. “
Nike did not immediately respond to requests from NBC News for comment.
However, in a statement posted on H&M China’s official Weibo site on Wednesday The global company has always managed its supply chain “openly and transparently” and has “taken no political position”.
“The H&M Group continues to respect the Chinese consumer. We are determined to invest in China for the long term and to develop further,” it said.
As the second largest economy in the world with 1.4 billion inhabitants, the Chinese purchasing power is strong.
“This is not the first time such a nationalist backlash against a foreign company has taken place,” said Xin Sun, lecturer in Chinese and East Asian economics at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.
Chinese consumers have already launched powerful boycotts of goods from Japan, South Korea and the US in the past decade, often with the “unofficial and implicit” support of the ruling Communist Party.
However, with the Uighur issue becoming increasingly focal between Washington and Beijing and showing no signs of easing, Sun said it is becoming more difficult for Western brands to do business in both markets.
“They are trying to respond to increasing control of Western customers and people over their supply chains,” he told NBC News.
“They walk a very fine line between the western market and of course the Chinese market is very big for them, but you can see the political pressure from all directions.”
The latest backlash comes shortly after the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday.
Beijing retaliated with its own sanctions, including a new round against British lawmakers and others on Friday, but also escalated public efforts to counter allegations of wrongdoing in Xinjiang.
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Commerce, Gao Feng, said Thursday that the forced labor allegations in Xinjiang were “completely wrong” and urged foreign companies to “correct their wrongdoings and prevent business activities from becoming political issues.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a press conference Thursday that the “strong response from Chinese internet users” spoke for itself and that Chinese people had the right to express their feelings and “counter malicious attacks on China based on rumors and lies”.
She also held up photos at the daily press conference of black people picking cotton in the United States and contrasted them with a second photo of people smiling in cotton fields in Xinjiang.
According to human rights groups and first-hand reports from Uyghurs, more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims are being held in detention camps in the region, where they are forced to study Marxism, give up their religion, work in factories and suffer abuse.
Beijing calls the centers “re-education camps” and says they provide vocational training and are necessary to fight extremism.
The US has called China’s genocide practices, which Beijing rejects.
Isabel Wang, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed.