Culture Economics

Boycotts, Nationalism and Burning Nike Trainers: How China Is Changing the Game

By Thomas Chan

The controversy over Xinjiang’s cotton and alleged forced labour have once again shifted the international focus onto human rights abuse issues and allegations of genocide in this Chinese autonomous region. 

It started as the CCP’s Communist Youth League dug up statements from Nike and H&M last year, regarding their concerns over forced labour in cotton production in the Chinese region. Human rights groups and the UN have long accused China of detaining its Uyghur minorities in concentration camps under horrific conditions. A BBC documentary has also interviewed survivors, who revealed the details of their ordeal and allegations of rape and torture. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described Beijing’s action as “genocide”, and his country’s call to sanction China was answered by Canada and the EU. 

Chinese state media have been attacking the brands, and a social media storm soon followed. Chinese e-commerce platforms have now taken down goods from these brands, with Chinese consumers and celebrities instigating a nationwide boycott on these brands. Pictures and video footage of Nike shoes being set on fire also spread across the web.

A Change In Tone

Other brands like Muji and Hugo Boss were soon caught in the crossfire. The Chinese government has demanded global brands continue buying cotton from the region, threatening that they “will not earn a penny” if refusing to do so. “Chinese people do not allow some foreigners to eat Chinese food while smashing Chinese bowls,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

China currently ranks second in global cotton production. It produced 5,9 million metric tonnes produced in 2019-2020, trailing India at 6.4 million. Given China’s huge leverage in the global supply chain and interdependence with the world economy, it wields huge power over brands and trade. 

On the surface, this may seem like nothing new, as China has long used its leverage in global trade to silence or pressure foreign entities, involving diplomatic actions and coordinated grassroots activities. BBC correspondent Robin Brant described the incident as follows:

“China likes to use its trading might and retail nationalism to pressure governments and multinationals – both at the same time preferably – to keep them quiet about its abuses.

The timing of this sudden “grassroots” reaction, led by celebrities who’ve been happy to take H&M’s money in exchange for an endorsement, is down to a wave of coordinated sanctions imposed by the UK, US and EU in the last few days – endorsed by Sweden among others.

BBC correspondent Robin Brant

Previous Incidents

Since 2017, South Korea had taken the full brunt of China’s boycotts when the US installed a series of missile interceptors in the country against North Korea’s missile threat, known as THAAD. China viewed that as a violation of its international rights, with its Foreign Minister Wang Yi claiming it “will reach deep into the hinterland of Asia” and harm China’s strategic security interests. The number of Chinese tourists, previously in the millions, dwindled, and large South Korean corporations all faced steep declines in China as a result. The impact is still felt at South Korean tourist hubs like Seoul and Jeju Island. 

A similar incident happened between China and Australia when the latter called for an inquiry over the origins of COVID19. China has been sensitive about discussions on the origins of the pandemic; the virus was first detected in 2019 in the city of Wuhan. China’s ambassador to Australia quickly rebutted by saying the probe is “dangerous” and could lead to boycotts from Chinese consumers. Soon after, China slapped a series of sanctions on Australian goods, including barley, meat, wine, coal and cotton. The tension escalated when a Chinese official Twitter account posted a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat and accused the country of being racist. Australia responded by urging its private sectors to diversify and appealed to the World Trade Organisation over China’s actions. 

However this time things may be different, as global liberal norms – not just companies – are in the crosshairs. Companies like Muji and Hugo Boss are torn between appeasing their Chinese customers and their international counterparts. The former’s share price in Japan dropped 22% and attracted domestic concerns after their Chinese branch stated their support for Xinjiang cotton. The latter’s Chinese office also made a similar claim, but its head office in Germany quickly rebutted that as unauthorised. A later pledge on human rights attracted boycotts from Chinese consumers and celebrities. 

The New Normal?

More interesting, however, is that even the global cotton sustainable watchdog, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), was caught in this drama. The Swiss-based NGO issued statements last year reaffirming research that revealed forced labour in Xinjiang and stopped licencing Xinjiang cotton production, though these statements were removed from the website. On the other hand, the NGO’s Chinese branch has stated on social media that they have found no evidence of forced labour in Xinjiang and will remain in close contact with its Chinese partners. 

These incidents have far greater implications than previous boycotts in the past decade. China may now have the bargaining power to not only make countries and corporations take sides, but they may also change long-established international norms like labour ethics and human rights. And once one fundamental norm can be changed, liberal Western countries could gradually lose more legitimacies over other norms. No matter how this controversy will end, we have already witnessed China’s prowess in weaponising its trade power and boycott ability.