March 29, 2021


CHINA: Nationalist backlash over Xinjiang is not necessarily a death sentence

BY Gabriel Wildau

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  • Global apparel brands are facing a nationalist backlash over the companies’ expressions of concern about alleged mass detentions and forced labor in Xinjiang.
  • Rather than a top-down order to target certain companies, the campaign looks more like an organic response to the broad incentives for Chinese media to engage in strident nationalism.
  • But the affected brands are not necessarily doomed; Beijing may prefer that they remain in China, while letting the incident serve as a warning to keep quiet on sensitive issues.

The dustup began on 24 March when the official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League (CYL) unearthed an undated statement from Sweden-based Hennes and Mauritz (H&M), apparently published in September, expressing concern about alleged abuses in Xinjiang and pledging not to source cotton from the region. The CYL said: “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!”

A day earlier, the US, Canada, EU, and UK had jointly issued sanctions on two Chinese officials deemed responsible for repression in Xinjiang. Beijing responded almost immediately with retaliatory sanctions on a range of officials and institutions from those countries, including members of the European and UK parliaments and Europe’s leading China-focused think tank.

Anatomy of a backlash

Following the CYL post, other state organs and grassroots online nationalists piled on, condemning H&M and other foreign brands that had issued similar statements, including Nike, Adidas, Burberry, Uniqlo, and Lacoste. H&M disappeared from e-commerce, online mapping, and app stores operated by Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent. In some mid-sized cities, mall operators reportedly shuttered H&M retail outlets. Dozens of Chinese celebrities renounced endorsement deals with H&M and other Western brands. Tencent also removed Burberry-designed costumes from a popular mobile game.

The simple interpretation is that the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus decided to target a flagship European brand in response to the EU sanctions, which were the bloc’s first against China since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. By contrast, the latest US sanctions followed series of earlier actions, including a ban on all cotton imports from Xinjiang, which produces 20% of the world’s cotton and 87% of China’s cotton. But it is not clear that the order to target H&M came from the top. On the contrary, the genealogy of the online outrage campaign suggests a more diffuse effort. Following the CYL post, an official Weibo account of the People’s Liberation Army was apparently the first to follow up, calling H&M’s statement “ignorant and arrogant.” From there, more authoritative propaganda outlets added their voices, including the Weibo accounts of the official Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper. Some though not all called directly for a boycott.

This sequence is not what one would expect if the Communist Party’s powerful Publicity Department (formerly known as Propaganda Department before the official English translation was changed) had instructed state media to denounce the brands in one of its regular directives to state media outlets. Former president Hu Jintao and several of his key allies rose through the ranks of the CYL, but a bureaucratic overhaul in 2016 significantly shrunk the group’s size and influence. The CYL’s waning influence is due in part to factional rivalries, as President Xi Jinping’s faction sees the group as Hu’s power base.

Rather than a top-down effort, the campaign looks more like an organic response to the broad incentives facing Chinese media, including commercial incentives, to defend the country from foreign criticism and cater to nationalist sentiment. As with “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Chinese diplomats respond to general incentives favoring strident nationalism, but any given statement is more likely to represent freelance improvisation by a single ambitious official than a top-down decision to amplify a particular message. Moreover, actual Chinese public opinion is broadly consistent with the sentiments of aggrieved nationalism to which state media give voice. The long-term impact of daily propaganda is an important factor behind such sentiment, but at this point state media do not need to expend much effort to activate it.

Passing storm?

Is this distinction – between a concerted, top-down effort to punish Western brands and a more organic and diffuse effort – significant? To some extent, yes. We have previously noted how Beijing defied expectations by refraining from punishing US technology firms in retaliation for US sanctions against Huawei and other Chinese technology groups. The motivation for this forbearance is Beijing’s desire to co-opt foreign companies as allies against constituencies win Western countries that favor decoupling.

The situation for apparel brands is different. These companies do not provide China with irreplaceable technology inputs and may therefore be considered expendable. Even so, Chinese leaders are likely sensitive to the embarrassment that would accompany the large-scale eviction of famous foreign apparel brands from China. Such a mass exodus would run counter to China’s efforts to increase foreign investment and entrench China’s central role in global supply chains.

With this risk in mind, these brands’ future in China is not necessarily doomed. State media have previously targeted other foreign brands including Apple, Volkswagen, Starbucks, and Dolce & Gabanna, but these storms eventually passed, and these brands continue to prosper in China. For Beijing, the ideal outcome may be that the dustup serves as a warning that foreign brands should avoid criticizing China or siding with Western governments on geopolitical disputes, even as these companies continue to operate in China. By letting the controversy continue to build, Chinese authorities would also risk unintentionally drawing domestic public attention to the evidence of abuses in Xinjiang. Even if central propaganda authorities did not start the campaign, they can still end it quickly by instructing state media to halt coverage and directing social media platforms to censor related posts.

Tough choices ahead

We have previously highlighted the ethical and reputational risks associated with commercial activity linked to Xinjiang. For foreign companies, the latest incident highlights the increasingly difficult task of navigating between Chinese and Western governments and publics. Statements on Xinjiang by H&M’s and other Western brands were themselves a response to pressure from Western governments and activist groups; staying silent would likely have carried costs in those markets. The apparel industry is currently in focus, but Xinjiang factories also produce half of the global supply of polysilicon, the metal used in solar panels. While carefully worded statements may still sometimes succeed in avoiding blowback from either side, foreign companies must now begin to consider which choice they will make if neutrality is no longer viable.

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