BEIJING: Swedish clothing giant H&M’s decision to no longer source cotton from Xinjiang has sparked backlash as China adopts an increasingly assertive stance against accusations of human rights violations.
The fashion retailer's products had vanished from Chinese tech titan Alibaba's e-commerce platform Taobao on Wednesday (Mar 24), while two popular actors cut ties with H&M and state media published commentaries criticising the company.
Last year, H&M said it would not source cotton from Xinjiang and was ending its relationship with a Chinese yarn producer accused of using forced labour. The company had said it was "deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of forced labour" in the region.
H&M said this after a report by think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year pointed to the company as a beneficiary of a forced labour transfer programme.
It was not immediately clear why an old statement from H&M, which media had reported last year, about the cotton-producing region was back in the public eye.
In a statement on Wednesday night, H&M said it "does not represent any political position" and remains committed to long-term investment in China.
China is H&M's fourth-biggest market with sales of 2.9 billion Swedish crowns (US$339 million) in the 12 months through November 2020.
"Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!" the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of China's ruling party, said in a post on the Weibo social media platform.
Actor Huang Xuan said on his official Weibo social media page he had terminated his contract as a representative for H&M, saying he opposed "slander and creating rumours".
The office of actress Victoria Song, who used to endorse H&M, released a statement saying she no longer had a relationship with the firm and "the country's interests are above all".
Broadcaster CCTV criticised H&M for "eating China's rice while smashing its pot".
Xinhua news agency added that "respecting facts" was the key bottom line.
The EU, US, Britain and Canada announced sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday in an escalating row over the treatment of China's Uyghur minority group.
Rights groups say at least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where authorities are also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
China denies the allegations and says training programmes and work schemes have helped stamp out extremism.