“In a social environment where censorship is commonplace, people are desensitized and even treat it as another form of entertainment,” Professor Huang said.

Albee Zhang and Joy Dong contributed research.

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China’s Anger at Foreign Brands Helps Local Rivals

Tim Min once drove BMWs. He considered buying a Tesla.

Instead Mr. Min, the 33-year-old owner of a Beijing cosmetics start-up, bought an electric car made by a Chinese Tesla rival, Nio. He likes Nio’s interiors and voice control features better.

He also considers himself a patriot. “I have a very strong inclination toward Chinese brands and very strong patriotic emotions,” he said. “I used to love Nike, too. Now I don’t see any reason for that. If there’s a good Chinese brand to replace Nike, I’ll be very happy to.”

Western brands like H&M, Nike and Adidas have come under pressure in China for refusing to use cotton produced in the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has waged a broad campaign of repression against ethnic minorities. Shoppers vowed to boycott the brands. Celebrities dropped their endorsement deals.

But foreign brands also face increasing pressure from a new breed of Chinese competitors making high-quality products and selling them through savvy marketing to an increasingly patriotic group of young people. There’s a term for it: “guochao,” or Chinese fad.

HeyTea, a $2 billion milk tea start-up with 700 stores, wants to replace Starbucks. Yuanqisenlin, a four-year-old low-sugar drink company valued at $6 billion, wants to become China’s Coca-Cola. Ubras, a five-year-old company, wants to supplant Victoria’s Secret with the most non-Victoria’s Secret of products: unwired, sporty bras that emphasize comfort.

The anger over Xinjiang cotton has given these Chinese brands another chance to win over consumers. As celebrities cut their ties to foreign brands, Li-Ning, a Chinese sportswear giant, announced that Xiao Zhan, a boy band member, would become its new global ambassador. Within 20 minutes, almost everything that Mr. Xiao wore on a Li-Ning advertisement had sold out online. A hashtag about the campaign was viewed more than one billion times.

China is undergoing a consumer brand revolution. Its young generation is more nationalistic and actively looking for brands that can align with that confidently Chinese identity. Entrepreneurs are rushing to build up names and products that resonate. Investors are turning their attention to these start-ups amid dropping returns from technology and media ventures.

When patriotism becomes a selling point, Western brands are put at a competitive disadvantage, especially in a country that increasingly requires global companies to toe the same political lines that Chinese firms must.

a jump in Tesla deliveries. IPhones remain immensely popular. Campaigns against foreign names have come and gone, and local brands that emphasize politics too much risk unwanted attention if the political winds shift quickly.

Still, interest in local brands marks a significant shift. Post-Mao, the country made few consumer products. The first televisions that most families owned in the 1980s were from Japan. Pierre Cardin, the French designer, reintroduced fashion with his first show in Beijing in 1979, bringing color and flair to a nation that during the Cultural Revolution wore blue and gray.

Chinese people born in the 1970s or earlier remember their first sip of Coco-Cola and their first bite of a Big Mac. We watched films from Hollywood, Japan and Hong Kong as much for the wardrobes and makeup as the plot. We rushed to buy Head & Shoulders shampoo because its Chinese name, Haifeisi, means “sea flying hair.”

“We’ve gone through the European and American fad, the Japanese and Korean fad, the American streetwear fad, even the Hong Kong and Taiwan fad,” said Xun Shaohua, who founded a Shanghai sportswear company that competes with Vans and Converse.

Now could be the time for the China fad. Chinese companies are making better products. China’s Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2009, doesn’t have the same attachment to foreign names.

Even People’s Daily, the traditionally staid Communist Party official newspaper, is getting into branding. It started a streetwear collection with Li-Ning in 2019. That same year, it issued a report with Baidu, the Chinese search company, called “Guochao Pride Big Data.” They found that when people in China searched for brands, more than two-thirds were looking for domestic names, up from only about one-third 10 years earlier.

makes up only about 40 percent of China’s economic output, much less than it does in the United States and Europe.

Patriotism aside, entrepreneurs argue that their ventures rest on a solid business foundation. Similar trends happened in Japan and South Korea, both now home to strong brands. Local players better know the abilities of the country’s supply chains and how to use social media.

Mr. Xun’s sports brand has half a million followers on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace and sells at the same prices as Vans and Converse, or even slightly higher. He said his brand competed by making shoes that fit Chinese feet better and offering colors favored locally, such as mint green and fuchsia. He sells exclusively online and teams up with Chinese and foreign brands and personalities, including Pokemon and Hello Kitty. At 37, he’s the only person in his company who was born before 1990.

The guochao fad has also reinvigorated older Chinese brands, like Li-Ning. For many years, sophisticated urbanites considered the brand, created by a former world champion gymnast of the same name, ugly and cheap. Its signature red-and-yellow color combination, after the Chinese flag, was mockingly called “eggs fried with tomato,” an everyday Chinese dish. Li-Ning was losing money. Its shares were on a losing streak.

Then the company introduced a collection at New York Fashion Week in early 2018. Its edgy look, combined with bold Chinese characters and embroidery, created buzz back home. Its shares have risen nearly ninefold since then. Now Li-Ning’s high-end collections sell at $100 to $150 on average, on a par with those of Adidas.

National Basketball Association and Dolce & Gabbana passed pretty quickly, this bout could linger, many people said.

“In the past, some Western brands didn’t understand or failed to respect the Chinese culture mostly because of lack of understanding,” Mr. Xun said. “This time it’s a political issue. They have violated our political sensitivities.”

Then, like any savvy Chinese entrepreneur who knows which topics are sensitive, he asked, “Could we not talk about politics?”

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China Tries to Counter Xinjiang Backlash With … a Musical?

In one scene, Uyghur women are seen dancing in a rousing Bollywood style face-off with a group of Uyghur men. In another, a Kazakh man serenades a group of friends with a traditional two-stringed lute while sitting in a yurt.

Welcome to “The Wings of Songs,” a state-backed musical that is the latest addition to China’s propaganda campaign to defend its policies in Xinjiang. The campaign has intensified in recent weeks as Western politicians and rights groups have accused Beijing of subjecting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to forced labor and genocide.

The film, which debuted in Chinese cinemas last week, offers a glimpse of the alternate vision of Xinjiang that China’s ruling Communist Party is pushing to audiences at home and abroad. Far from being oppressed, the musical seems to say, the Uyghurs and other minorities are singing and dancing happily in colorful dress, a flashy take on a tired Chinese stereotype about the region’s minorities that Uyghur rights activists quickly denounced.

“The notion that Uyghurs can sing and dance so therefore there is no genocide — that’s just not going to work,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Genocide can take place in any beautiful place.”

Western sanctions, the Chinese government has responded with a fresh wave of Xinjiang propaganda across a wide spectrum. The approach ranges from portraying a sanitized, feel-good version of life in Xinjiang — as in the example of the musical — to deploying Chinese officials on social media sites to attack Beijing’s critics. To reinforce its message, the party is emphasizing that its efforts have rooted out the perceived threat of violent terrorism.

In the government’s telling, Xinjiang is now a peaceful place where Han Chinese, the nation’s dominant ethnic group, live in harmony alongside the region’s Muslim ethnic minorities, just like the “seeds of a pomegranate.” It’s a place where the government has successfully emancipated women from the shackles of extremist thinking. And the region’s ethnic minorities are portrayed as grateful for the government’s efforts.

reality on the ground, in which the authorities maintain tight control using a dense network of surveillance cameras and police posts, and have detained many Uyghurs and other Muslims in mass internment camps and prisons. As of Monday, the film had brought in a dismal $109,000 at the box office, according to Maoyan, a company that tracks ticket sales.

initially denied the existence of the region’s internment camps. Then they described the facilities as “boarding schools” in which attendance was completely voluntary.

Now, the government is increasingly adopting a more combative approach, seeking to justify its policies as necessary to combat terrorism and separatism in the region.

Chinese officials and state media have pushed the government’s narrative about its policies in Xinjiang in part by spreading alternative narratives — including disinformation — on American social networks like Twitter and Facebook. This approach reached an all-time high last year, according to a report published last week by researchers at the International Cyber Policy Center of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI.

The social media campaign is centered on Chinese diplomats on Twitter, state-owned media accounts, pro-Communist Party influencers and bots, the institute’s researchers found. The accounts send messages often aimed at spreading disinformation about Uyghurs who have spoken out, and to smear researchers, journalists, and organizations working on Xinjiang issues.

Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who was not involved in the ASPI report, called China’s Xinjiang offensive the biggest international propaganda campaign on a single topic that she had seen in her 25 years of researching the Chinese propaganda system.

“It’s shrill and dogmatic, it’s increasingly aggressive,” she said in emailed comments. “And it will keep on going, whether it is effective or not.”

In a statement, Twitter said it had suspended a number of the accounts cited by the ASPI researchers. Facebook said in a statement that it had recently removed a malicious hacker group that had been targeting the Uyghur diaspora. Both companies began labeling the accounts of state-affiliated media outlets last year.

The party has also asserted that it needed to take firm action after a spate of deadly attacks rocked the region some years ago. Critics say that the extent of the violence remains unclear, but also that such unrest did not justify the sweeping, indiscriminate scope of the detentions.

Last week, the government played up a claim that it had uncovered a plot by Uyghur intellectuals to sow ethnic hatred. CGTN, an international arm of China’s state broadcaster, released a documentary on Friday that accused the scholars of writing textbooks that were full of “blood, violence, terrorism and separatism.”

The books had been approved for use in elementary and middle schools in Xinjiang for more than a decade. Then in 2016, shortly before the crackdown started, they were suddenly deemed subversive.

The documentary accuses the intellectuals of having distorted historical facts, citing, for example, the inclusion of a historical photo of Ehmetjan Qasim, a leader of a short-lived independent state in Xinjiang in the late 1940s.

“It’s just absurd,” said Kamalturk Yalqun, whose father, Yalqun Rozi, a prominent Uyghur scholar, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 for attempted subversion for his involvement with the textbooks. He said that a photo of Mr. Rozi shown in the film was the first time he had seen his father in five years.

“China is just trying to come up with any way they can think of to dehumanize Uyghurs and make these textbooks look like dangerous materials,” he said by phone from Boston. “My father was not an extremist but just a scholar trying to do his job well.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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Japan Is Finding It Harder to Stay Quiet on China’s Abuse of Uyghurs

TOKYO — Last summer, Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, received a video call from his brother in China’s western Xinjiang region. His brother said he had someone he wanted Mr. Rozi to meet: a Chinese security officer.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, had been invited to Japan, and the officer had some questions. Were Mr. Rozi and his fellow Uyghur activists planning protests? Who were the group’s leaders? What work were they doing? If Mr. Rozi cooperated, his family in China would be well cared for, the officer assured him on a second video call.

The officer’s intent was clear — to discourage Mr. Rozi from doing anything that might hurt China’s reputation in Japan. The warning had the opposite effect. Mr. Rozi had invited Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, to surreptitiously record the second call, which was later broadcast to millions of viewers.

The footage provided a rare look at Beijing’s efforts to cultivate and intimidate Chinese ethnic minorities abroad, and it has contributed to a growing awareness in Japan of China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

put in re-education camps in recent years in what critics say is an effort to erase their ethnic identity. Japan is the only member of the Group of 7 industrial powers that did not participate in coordinated sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last month over the situation in Xinjiang, which the U.S. government has declared a genocide.

signed a joint statement criticizing China over its “coercion and destabilizing behavior” in the Asia-Pacific region and its violations of the “international order.”

H&M learned last month when it became the target of a nationalist boycott in China for expressing concern about accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry.

By contrast, the Japanese retail company Muji, which has more than 200 stores in mainland China, recently declared that it would continue to use cotton from Xinjiang despite the accusations.

Still, despite the economic and geopolitical risks, a growing group of lawmakers are calling for Japan to defend Uyghur rights. Members of Parliament are working on legislation that would give the government powers to impose sanctions over human rights abuses. And a broad cross section of Japanese politicians were pushing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to cancel Mr. Xi’s state visit to Japan before it was delayed for a second time by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Uyghur community in Japan, though estimated to be fewer than 3,000 people, has become more visible in the past year as it presses the government to act. Mr. Rozi’s story has played no small part. Since the broadcast last year of his call with the Chinese security officer, Mr. Rozi — a fluent Japanese speaker — has appeared in the news media and before a parliamentary group to discuss the abuses in Xinjiang.

The stories of other Uyghurs have also found a wider Japanese audience in recent months, including in a best-selling graphic novel featuring testimony from women who had been imprisoned in the Xinjiang camps.

As awareness has increased in Japan, concerns about Chinese human rights abuses have grown across the political spectrum.

For years, complaints about China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities were considered the purview of Japan’s hawkish right wing. Centrists and those on the left often saw them as pretexts for replacing Japan’s postwar pacifism with the pursuit of regional hegemony.

But China’s behavior in Xinjiang has forced a reassessment among many liberals. Even Japan’s Communist Party is calling it “a serious violation of human rights.”

“China says this is an internal problem, but we have to deal with it as an international problem,” Akira Kasai, a member of Parliament and one of the party’s top strategists, said in a recent interview.

Last summer, nearly 40 members of the Japanese legislature formed a committee for rethinking Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing. In February, a longstanding conservative parliamentary committee dedicated to promoting Uyghur rights expanded its membership to include lawmakers in the country’s center-left opposition parties.

The groups, said Shiori Yamao, an opposition lawmaker, are pushing the legislature to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. government, as well as parliaments in Canada and the Netherlands, by declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide.

Members of Parliament say they are also working on a Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Act, the American law used to impose sanctions on government officials around the world involved in directing human rights abuses.

It is unclear how much traction the efforts will get. Mr. Rozi does not believe that lawmakers will go so far as to accuse China of genocide, but he is hopeful that Japan will impose sanctions.

Mr. Rozi came to Japan in 2005 for a graduate program in engineering, eventually starting a construction company and opening a kebab shop in Chiba Prefecture, on Tokyo’s outskirts. He was not political, he said, and steered clear of any activities that might be viewed unfavorably by the Chinese government.

Everything changed in 2018, after he learned that several members of his wife’s family had been detained. Communication with his own family had also become nearly impossible amid the security clampdown.

The experience convinced Mr. Rozi that he needed to speak out, and he soon began participating in protests calling for China to close the camps. Before long, he had become a prominent voice in Japan’s Uyghur community, making media appearances, meeting with politicians and running seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received the surprise phone call from his brother, he knew that his activism had caught the attention of Chinese officials.

Since Mr. Rozi’s appearance on the Japanese public broadcaster, the Chinese government has made no further attempts to contact him, he said. Phone calls to his family have gone unanswered.

He is afraid for his relatives. But speaking out has been worth it, he said: “Now pretty much everyone here knows about the Uyghurs’ problems.”

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How China’s Outrage Machine Kicked Up a Storm Over H&M

When the Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M said in September that it was ending its relationship with a Chinese supplier accused of using forced labor, a few Chinese social media accounts dedicated to the textile industry took note. But by and large, the moment passed without fanfare.

Half a year later, Beijing’s online outrage machine sprang into action. This time, its wrath was unsparing.

The Communist Party’s youth wing denounced H&M on social media and posted an archival photo of slaves on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Official news outlets piled on with their own indignant memes and hashtags. Patriotic web users carried the message across far and varied corners of the Chinese internet.

Within hours, a tsunami of nationalist fury was crashing down upon H&M, Nike, Uniqlo and other international clothing brands, becoming the latest eruption over China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang, a major cotton producer.

sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last week by the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada in connection to Xinjiang. China has placed hundreds of thousands of the region’s Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in indoctrination camps and used harsh methods to push them into jobs with factories and other employers.

“The hate-fest part is not sophisticated; it’s the same logic they’ve followed going back decades,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. But “their ability to control it is getting better,” he said.

“They know how to light up those ultra-pro-government, nationalist users,” Mr. Xiao continued. “They’re getting very good at it. They know exactly what to do.”

rejected the notion that Beijing had led the boycott campaign against H&M and the other brands.

“These foreign companies refuse to use Xinjiang cotton purely on the basis of lies,” Mr. Zhao said at a news briefing. “Of course this will trigger the Chinese people’s dislike and anger. Does the government even need to incite and guide this?”

After the Communist Youth League ignited the outrage on Wednesday, other government-backed groups and state news outlets fanned the flames.

They posted memes proposing new meanings behind the letters H and M: mian hua (cotton), huang miu (ridiculous), mo hei (smears). The official Xinhua news agency posted an illustration depicting the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that had expressed concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang, as a blindfolded puppet controlled by two hands that were patterned like an American flag.

The buzz quickly drew notice at Beijing’s highest levels. On Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman held up a photo of slaves in American cotton fields during a news briefing.

shared a clip showing a worker removing an H&M sign from a mall. A user in Beijing who posts about television stars highlighted entertainers who had ended their contracts with Adidas and other targeted brands.

“Today’s China is not one that just anyone can bully!” he wrote to his nearly seven million followers. “We do not ask for trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble either.”

A fashion influencer named Wei Ya held a live video event on Friday hawking products made with Xinjiang cotton. In her Weibo post announcing the event, she made sure to tag the Communist Youth League.

By Monday, news sites were circulating a rap video that combined the cotton issue with some popular recent lines of attack on Western powers: “How can a country where 500,000 have died of Covid-19 claim the high ground?”

One Weibo user posted a lushly animated video that he said he had worked through the night to make. It shows white-hooded men pointing guns at Black cotton pickers and ends with a lynching.

“These are your foolish acts; we would never,” a caption reads.

Less than two hours after the user shared the video, it was reposted by Global Times, a party-controlled newspaper known for its nationalist tone.

Many web users who speak up during such campaigns are motivated by genuine patriotism, even if China’s government does pay some people to post party-line comments. Others, such as the traffic-hungry blog accounts derided in China as “marketing accounts,” are probably more pragmatic. They just want the clicks.

tests conducted by China Digital Times, internet platforms have been diligently controlling search results and comments related to Xinjiang and H&M since last week.

An article in Global Times urged readers to “resolutely criticize those like H&M that make deliberate provocations, but at the same time, stay rational and beware of pretend patriots joining the crowd to stir up hatred.”

The Communist Youth League has been at the forefront of optimizing party messages for viral engagement. Its influence is growing as more voices in society look for ways to show loyalty to Beijing, said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

apologized for the “bad impact” her post had made.

“Don’t just support Xinjiang cotton, support Xinjiang people too!” another Weibo user wrote. “Support Xinjiang people walking the streets and not having their phone and ID checked.”

The post later vanished. Its author declined to comment, citing concerns for his safety. Weibo did not respond to a request for comment.

Lin Qiqing contributed research.

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An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order.

President Biden wants to forge an “alliance of democracies.” China wants to make clear that it has alliances of its own.

Only days after a rancorous encounter with American officials in Alaska, China’s foreign minister joined his Russian counterpart last week to denounce Western meddling and sanctions.

He then headed to the Middle East to visit traditional American allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as Iran, where he signed a sweeping investment agreement on Saturday. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, reached out to Colombia one day and pledged support for North Korea on another.

Although officials denied the timing was intentional, the message clearly was. China hopes to position itself as the main challenger to an international order, led by the United States, that is generally guided by principles of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to rule of law.

John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, said of China’s strategy.

As result, the world is increasingly dividing into distinct if not purely ideological camps, with both China and the United States hoping to lure supporters.

geopolitical competition between models of governance. He compared Mr. Xi to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, “who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can’t function” in “an ever-complex world.”

He later called the challenge “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”

declared a genocide.

quashing of dissent in Hong Kong, from Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, though a Saudi statement did not mention Xinjiang.

China’s most striking alignment is with Russia, where Mr. Putin has long complained about American hegemony and its use — abuse, in his view — of the global financial system as an instrument of foreign policy.

The Russian foreign minister arrived in China last Monday railing about American sanctions and saying the world needed to reduce its reliance on the U.S. dollar.

China and Russia have drawn closer especially since Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was met with international outrage and Western penalties. While the possibility of a formal alliance remains remote, the countries’ diplomatic and economic ties have deepened in common cause against the United States. So have strategic ties. The People’s Liberation Army and the Russian military now routinely hold exercises together and have twice conducted joint air patrols along Japan’s coast, most recently in December.

The two countries announced this month that they would build a research station on the moon together, setting the stage for competing space programs, one led by China and the other by the United States.

“The latest steps and gestures by the Biden administration, seen as hostile and insulting by the Russian and Chinese leaders, have predictably pushed Moscow and Beijing even deeper into a mutual embrace,” said Artyom Lukin, a professor of international studies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.

report on human rights in the United States on Wednesday, using as an epigraph George Floyd’s plea to the police, “I can’t breathe.”

“The United States should lower the tone of democracy and human rights and talk more about cooperation in global affairs,” Yuan Peng, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank, wrote the same day.

From that perspective, Mr. Xi’s outreach to North Korea and Mr. Wang’s visit to Iran could signal China’s interest in working with the United States to resolve disputes over those two countries’ nuclear programs.

Mr. Biden’s administration may be open to that. After the Alaska meetings, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken mentioned both as potential areas where “our interests intersect” with China’s.

sealed trade and investment agreements, including one with the European Union, hoping to box out Mr. Biden.

It didn’t work. The first results of Mr. Biden’s strategy emerged last week, when the United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union jointly announced sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang. China’s condemnation was swift.

“The era when it was possible to make up a story and concoct lies to wantonly meddle in Chinese domestic affairs is past and will not come back,” Mr. Wang said.

China retaliated with sanctions of its own against elected officials and scholars in the European Union and Britain. Similar penalties followed Saturday on Canadians and Americans, including top officials at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body that held a hearing this month on forced labor in Xinjiang. All affected will be barred from traveling to China or conducting business with Chinese companies or individuals.

Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, said China’s sanctions on Europeans were an overreaction that would drive officials into an anti-China camp.

They could also jeopardize China’s investment deal with the European Union, as many of those penalized are members of the European Parliament, whose approval is required. So could new campaigns by Chinese consumers against major Western brands like H & M and Nike.

Until now, many European Union nations have not wanted to explicitly choose sides, eschewing the kind of bipolar ideological divisions seen during the Cold War, in part because of deepening economic ties with China.

With each new twist in relations, however, clearer camps are emerging. “The Chinese mirror all the time,” Ms. Fallon said. “They always accuse people of Cold War thinking because I think that’s really, deep down, how they think.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting, and Claire Fu contributed research.

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China’s Outrage over Forced Labor Charges Targets H&M, Adidas and Nike

H&M faces a boycott. Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Nike, Converse and Calvin Klein have lost their brand ambassadors. Burberry has had to give up an online video game partnership.

Western brands are suddenly feeling the wrath of the Chinese consumer, the very shoppers who for years have clamored for their products and paid them vast amounts of money. Egged on by the ruling Communist Party, Chinese online activists are punishing foreign companies that have joined a call to avoid using cotton produced in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the authorities are waging a broad campaign of repression against ethnic minorities.

The sudden bout of rage lays bare the vulnerability of foreign companies as tensions worsen between China and the United States and other countries. Lawmakers in the United States in particular who have been increasingly critical of China have pressured international companies to take a public stance on China’s human rights practices, including in Xinjiang. That makes the companies convenient targets for Chinese officials who are aggressively pushing back against American officials.

“A lot of Western countries and China are pretty black-and-white on this issue. There’s not a lot of gray,” said Trey McArver, a co-founder of Trivium China, a consultancy that helps foreign businesses sell in China, referring to the opposing stances over Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. “You can’t agree with both of them, so I don’t think it’s an easy answer.”

imposed fresh sanctions on top Chinese officials this week. These sought to punish Beijing for abuses against the Uyghurs and other minorities, which have been well documented by foreign media and rights groups. There is also growing evidence that cotton from Xinjiang is linked to coercive labor programs and mass internment of as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities, the U.S. government and rights groups say.

It isn’t clear what the long-term impact might be on Western companies that depend on China to make or buy their products. On Thursday, there was still a steady stream of shoppers at several popular H&M and Nike outlets in Shanghai and Beijing. Previous state media-driven pressure campaigns against companies like Apple, Starbucks and Volkswagen failed to dent Chinese demand for their products.

Still, their position could become increasingly precarious as Beijing looks for ways to counter the narrative. And it is no stranger to flexing its economic muscle for political ends.

Years earlier, after South Korea embraced an American antimissile defense system, the Chinese government fed anti-South Korean sentiment in the country that forced Lotte Mart, a popular South Korean supermarket, to shut many of its outlets. The missile system stayed, but Beijing was still able to exact pain.

Such tactics have become a common feature of China’s increasingly aggressive brand of diplomacy. Chinese diplomats now routinely deploy a mix of threats and nationalistic messages to browbeat Beijing’s critics and assert the country’s interests.

phrase traced to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, who, in demanding loyalty to the party, said in 2014: “Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.”

raised concerns about labor in Xinjiang. She said she was now skeptical of the brand. “I probably would not buy it from now on,” she said.

Chinese state media outlets have overtly stoked the outrage with hashtags on social media and bold headlines. Government officials have sought to depict the outcry as authentic, with a Commerce Ministry spokesman saying on Thursday that Chinese consumers were “hoping that the relevant companies would correct their wrong practices.”

For decades, foreign companies operating in China have been largely wary of appearing critical of the Chinese government. And in recent years, several of them have been besieged by a growing army of nationalistic online users, who have been ready to pounce on the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. All have been quick to apologize, and emerged largely unscathed.

an alliance to curb China’s influence, Beijing, emboldened by its success in curbing the coronavirus outbreak at home, is pushing back hard against what it perceives as hypocrisy.

“It might get more heated,” said Jörg Wuttke, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, in an email. More European companies are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place, he said. “Everybody has to service their domestic crowd.”

But for many of these companies, the issue is more complicated than a matter of managing public relations.

To obtain cotton, the companies almost certainly need to get it from Xinjiang, which produces 87 percent of the material in China. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang.

But in January, the Trump administration announced a ban on imports of cotton from Xinjiang, as well as all products made with those materials, putting pressure on brands to check their supply chains. Rights groups such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project have also been pushing American lawmakers to enact sweeping legislation that would block imports from Xinjiang, unless companies can prove that their supply chains are free of forced labor.

Ms. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, on Thursday denounced the accusations of forced labor, saying Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang provided employment opportunities to lift people out of poverty.

“The accusation of ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is entirely a lie concocted by certain anti-China forces,” she said. “The purpose is to discredit China’s image, undermine Xinjiang’s security and stability and impede China’s development.”

Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization, and state media highlighted a statement that the company made eight months ago setting out its concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang. That prompted Chinese internet users to call for a boycott.

The company responded on Wednesday by saying its statement last year on Xinjiang did not “represent any political position.” That made internet users, who were baying for an apology, only more furious.

On Thursday, a mall in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, shut an H&M outlet, urging the company to apologize formally to people in the region. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, workers dismantled the company’s sign from a store.

“I don’t expect this to die down,” said Surya Deva, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a member of the United Nations working group on business and human rights. “This is a different trajectory and a different era.”

Justine Nolan, a professor in Sydney at the faculty of law and justice at the University of New South Wales, said it was also an opportunity for foreign companies to demonstrate their support for human rights.

“They are now being put to the test,” she added. “This is the red line for them — and it’s not an issue that they can afford to be halfhearted about.”

Reporting and research were contributed by Coral Yang, Claire Fu, Chris Buckley and Elsie Chen.

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