Chinese celebrities and politicians are racing to distance themselves from western brands as Beijing steps up a campaign to penalise those making accusations of abuses in Xinjiang, including fashion companies that boycott the region’s cotton.
Burberry was one high-profile target, as the award-winning actor Zhou Dongyu ended her “brand ambassador” role, the company’s hallmark tartan was scrubbed from a popular video game, and a Hong Kong lawmaker shared a widely mocked photograph of herself staring mournfully at a trio of scarves she promised not to wear again.
The Swedish clothing company H&M was all but scrubbed from the Chinese language internet overnight, its stores removed from maps and ride-hailing apps and its app deleted from online stores as its products vanished from online marketplaces.
Xinjiang produces more than a fifth of the world’s cotton and more than four-fifths of China’s, but there have been accusations of human rights abuses in production including forced labour of Uighur and other Turkic Muslim minority people.
Growing concerns about abusive practices, raised by campaigners, consumers and officials in the west, led to pledges it would be removed from supply chains. In many cases those promises were old ones, with H&M making its commitment last year.
The belated anger among Chinese consumers about these boycotts, which appears to have been stoked by articles in state media, came as Beijing brought in sanctions on European and British politicians and researchers over what it called “lies and disinformation” about Xinjiang.
Some brands including Muji and Fila responded to the boycotts by underlining their commitment to using cotton from Xinjiang, a reminder of China’s importance as one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing markets for fashion.
The German fashion company Hugo Boss, notorious for its maltreatment of forced workers during the second world war when it supplied the Nazis with uniforms, made a clumsy attempt to placate both customers in China and critics of Xinjiang cotton farming.
It posted a message on Chinese social media promising to “continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton”, local media reported, while an English language statement on its website said “HUGO BOSS has not procured any goods originating in the Xinjiang region from direct suppliers”.
Burberry, like many of the others facing a backlash inside China, is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that promotes sustainable cotton production and said in October it was suspending its approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang, citing human rights concerns.
Zhou’s agency said on Thursday Burberry had not “clearly and publicly stated its stance on cotton from Xinjiang”. Tencentremoved Burberry items of clothing from its video game Honor of Kings.
Other mass-market brands that have been targeted by both customers and celebrities include Adidas, which was ditched by the singers Eason Chan and Angelababy of Hong Kong, Uniqlo, which lost the actors Ni Ni and Jing Boran, and Puma, which was abandoned by Gulnazar, a Uighur actor.
The tensions between criticism of human rights abuses in China, and the lure of its hundreds of millions of consumers, are only likely to grow ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, planned for February 2022, which has become a focus for activists lobbying for stronger measures.
China rejects accusations of abuse and says internment camps and other security measures in Xinjiang are part of a campaign against extremism and terrorism. It pressures anyone wanting to do business inside its borders, or with its companies, to fall in line with government positions, arguing companies cannot criticise China while profiting from it.