China pressures brands to reject reports of Uyghur abuse in Xinjiang

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China stepped up pressure Monday on foreign shoe and clothing brands to reject reports of abuses in Xinjiang, telling companies to look more closely at the Uyghur issue.

H&M, Nike, Adidas and other brands are caught in a spiralling conflict over Xinjiang after Western governments imposed sanctions on Chinese officials accused of abuses.

Chinese state media called for a boycott of H&M for saying it would no longer use cotton from Xinjiang and was criticising other brands for expressing concern about reports of forced labour.

“When the stick of sanctions is brandished on Xinjiang, it will also hit your own head,” a spokesman for the Xinjiang regional government, Xu Guixiang, said at a news conference in Beijing.

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More than 1 million members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been confined to camps in Xinjiang in China’s northwest, according to foreign governments and researchers. Authorities there are accused of imposing forced labour and coercive birth control measures.

The Chinese government rejects complaints of abuses and says the camps are for job training to support economic development and combat Islamic radicalism.

H&M should “look into this matter seriously,” Xu said.

“Where did you get this evidence? That would be some fake scholars or distorted reports or so-called testimonies,” Xu said. “Many of these people are ill-intentioned. They just want to destabilise Xinjiang.”

A protester from the Uyghur community living in Turkey, participates in a protest in Istanbul, Thursday, March 25, against the visit of China's FM Wang Yi to Turkey. Hundreds of Uyghurs staged protests in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, denouncing Wang Yi's visit to Turkey and demanding that the Turkish government take a stronger stance against human rights abuses in China's far-western Xinjiang region.

Emrah Gurel/AP

A protester from the Uyghur community living in Turkey, participates in a protest in Istanbul, Thursday, March 25, against the visit of China’s FM Wang Yi to Turkey. Hundreds of Uyghurs staged protests in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, denouncing Wang Yi’s visit to Turkey and demanding that the Turkish government take a stronger stance against human rights abuses in China’s far-western Xinjiang region.

The attacks began when the ruling party’s Youth League publicised H&M’s statement last Wednesday. State TV called for a boycott of the Swedish retailer. Official media have criticised Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo and Burberry for expressing concern about reports of forced labour in Xinjiang.

That came after United States, the 27-nation European Union, Britain and Canada on March 22 announced travel and financial sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of abuses. Beijing has retaliated by announcing similar penalties against European and British officials, legislators and researchers.

H&M goods have disappeared from major Chinese e-commerce platforms but on Monday the other brands still were available. The smartphone apps for H&M, Adidas and Nike were missing Monday from major Chinese app stores.

The Communist Party often pressures foreign clothing, travel and other brands over actions by their governments or to compel them to adopt its positions on Taiwan, Tibet and other sensitive issues.

Most comply because China is one of the biggest, fastest-growing markets for global fashion, electronics and other consumer brands.

Another government spokesman, Elijan Anayat, pointed to a statement by athletic shoe brand Skechers USA, that it failed to find evidence to support a report by an Australian think tank that one of its Chinese suppliers might use forced labour.

The supplier, Dong Guan Lu Zhou Shoes, confirmed some of its workforce are Uyghurs but said they are free to leave, according to Skechers. It said the company has conducted multiple audits of the supplier since 2017 and has “no reason to believe that Lu Zhou is using any forced labour.”

“I believe they will be appreciated by Chinese customers and win greater (market) shares,” Elijan Anayat said.

H&M’s statement last March cited a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes labour and environmental standards, to stop licensing cotton from Xinjiang because it was difficult to trace how it was produced.

Japanese retailer MUJI and South Korean-owned athletic shoemaker FILA say will keep buying cotton from Xinjiang. FILA China said last week it started the process of withdrawing from the BCI.

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