Brand Boycotts in China Over Divided Stances on Human Rights Violations

By Shania Pagan

Popular western brands have been facing extreme boycotts in China over their decision to no longer collaborate cotton purchases with the country. This dismantling of decade long partnerships between the brands and the Xinjiang region of China -which produces nearly 90% of all cotton in the country- comes from the alleged genocide, detainment and forced labor targeting the country’s Muslim population.

The Chinese government has allegedly detained 800,000 to 2 millionresidents who are Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang, Muslim, and various other groups within the region. The arrests and relocations began in 2017, and many of the detainees are believed to be held in “re-education” camps in the region where conditions are unregulated. 

The United Nations and a number of governments have attempted to get involved with China’s apparent abuses and violations of human rights. Within the camps, it is rumored that there is not only forced labor, but the demanding of detainees to renounce their beliefs, and suffer through extreme physical abuse. The Chinese government has refused to share information, or allow foreign involvement to gain access to what is occurring within these camps, only claiming that there is no violation of human rights.

The United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and European Union have instilled sanctions on China, stating that they cannot accept the “repressive practices against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.” H&M, Nike, Adidas, Under Armor, and ZARA, are a few of the immensely popular brands that have backed the outcry against China’s actions. These major brands are affiliated with the Better Cotton Initiative, a group focused on the ethical production and obtainment of cotton.

H&M, a Swedish brand, released a statement in 2020 regarding the issue, stating that they are “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labour and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities,” in China. However, once boycotting against the brand ensued, they adjusted their statement, claiming that it was essential for the company to work together with Chinese colleagues, who are relevant stakeholders and important customers to the company.

Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, circulated the comments of H&M and other brands who intended to end business relationships with the Xinjiang region. It wasn’t long before users began trending the boycotting of the brands, and Chinese celebrities were quick to join in. Some A-list Chinese celebrities, including actor Wang Yibo and musician Eason Chan, publicly renounced endorsement deals for brands who went against China.  

Chinese officials have defended the detainments with claims that they are concerned about possible extremist views within the ethnic groups, and want to eliminate potential threats of separatist ideas that would threaten the Chinese government and people. The U.S in particular has been vocal about their distrust in China’s claims. One of former President Donald Trump’s last actions in office was to declare China’s actions as crimes against humanity and genocidal against the Uyghur population. Current President Joe Biden has also referred to the situation as “genocide” throughout his campaign trail. 

The actions of the Chinese government significantly impacts global interactions. As more information is known about their treatment of the ethnic and religious minorities in the country, foreign reactions will be evident of that. Future relationship standings between Western brands and their Chinese partnerships are unknown, and the quality of life within the detainment camps remains kept in the dark.

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