China attacks Western nations, firms over Xinjiang cotton boycott

Officials warn companies against ‘politicising economic behaviour’ amid Western concerns over forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton industry.

People walk past an H&M store in a shopping area in Beijing, China, March 28, 2021 [Thomas Peter/ Reuters]

China has accused the United States and other Western countries of engaging in a campaign aimed at destabilising the country and rebuked Sweden’s H&M and other foreign companies who have raised concerns about forced labour in the far-western region of Xinjiang.

Xu Guixiang, a spokesman for the regional government of Xinjiang, rejected on Monday allegations that Chinese authorities were committing genocide and other rights abuses against the far western region’s Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.

He described the allegations as “misconduct” that goes against “international efforts to punish genocide crimes” and said they “can be called the biggest false accusations in human history”.

Xu went on to warn Western companies against getting involved in the growing rift, noting the case of H&M, which is facing a Chinese consumer backlash over a 2020 statement in which the Swedish brand said it would no longer source cotton from Xinjiang.

“I don’t think a company should politicize its economic behaviour,” he said. “Can H&M continue to make money in the Chinese market? Not any more.”

He added, “To rush into this decision and get involved in the sanctions is not reasonable. It’s like lifting a stone to drop it on one’s own feet.”

China is facing increasing pressure over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where the United Nations says more than one million Uighurs have been detained in internment camps.

Human rights groups also say the detainees are subject to forced labour.

China denies claims of abuses at the camps, calling them “vocational training” and “re-education” centres set up to tackle hardline religious views in the region.

Beijing has yet to allow independent observers access to Xinjiang, however. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday said the global body was holding “serious negotiations” with China for unfettered access to the region to verify reports of rights abuses.

‘Never defame Xinjiang’s cotton industry’

The US, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union last week ramped up pressure on China over the alleged Xinjiang abuses, imposing a coordinated set of sanctions on current and former Chinese officials. The action came weeks after the US government, and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments said China’s treatment of the Uighurs amounted to genocide, and Washington announced an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from the area.

Beijing responded to the coordinated sanctions with immediate tit-for-tat measures.

And on Wednesday, the Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League launched attacks on H&M, calling attention to a statement in which the world’s second-largest clothing retailer said it would stop licensing Xinjiang cotton because of difficulties in tracing how the material was produced.

The party tabloid the Global Times also criticised statements about Xinjiang from Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Zara.

Dozens of Chinese celebrities followed by cutting off ties with the brands.

Landlords have meanwhile closed at least six H&M stores in the lower-tier cities of Urumqi, Yinchuan, Changchun and Lianyungang, according to mall operators in those areas who were contacted by the Bloomberg news agency. Local media have reported more closures, with pictures showing H&M’s brand billboards being removed.

Elijan Anayat, another Xinjiang government spokesman, said during Monday’s briefing that Chinese people do not want the products of companies such as H&M and Nike that have boycotted Xinjiang’s cotton.

He invited companies to take trips to the region’s cotton fields to see the situation for themselves.

“They have lost their minds, conscience and bottom lines,” Anayat added, referring to Western powers.

“They are keen on political manipulation and addicted to tricks of sanctions to the level of hysterical. The EU, the US, the UK and Canada partnered on political manipulation by making use of Xinjiang related issues. Their purpose is, by using human rights as an excuse, to destabilise Xinjiang and China.”

The official Xinhua news agency said Xinjiang cotton makes up about 87 percent of China’s total output or one-fifth of the world’s output. In a commentary, the news agency said boycotting the region’s cotton – which employs some seven million people – amounted to taking away people’s jobs and that if foreign brands cared about the Uighurs, they would “never defame Xinjiang’s cotton industry”.

The Global Times on Saturday also cited Chinese experts saying the value of Western brands that criticise Xinjiang cotton could halve in five years.

Zhang Yi, the CEO of Shenzhen-based iiMedia Research, told the Global Times that foreign firms can never succeed if they have no respect for local markets.

“The immediate share plunge of these related firms is only the tip of the iceberg for their future losses,” he said. “And the ultimate brand value of these Western companies, measured in terms of their growth potential, could be cut in half over the next five years if they refuse to rectify their discriminations against China.”

The US is also at loggerheads with China over a range of issues, including trade, technology and Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies