The boycott in China of Nike, Adidas and other Western brands over their stance against alleged human rights violations in the cotton-manufacturing province of Xinjiang is losing momentum, at least in the sports sector, according to an article in the South China Morning Post. Both Nike and Adidas have remained visible on major local websites like Taobao and JD.com. Nationalist web users had called for a complete boycott against all the brands involved in the Xinjiang cotton controversy.
The South China Morning Post noted that the sale of a Nike shoe last Friday on the brand’s online store in Tmall attracted 350,000 advance reservations. The newspaper is owned by Alibaba, which also owns Tmall and Taobao.
Another report pointed out that the state-backed China Football Association had “internally” condemned Nike for its stance on the plight of the Uyghur minority, but did not terminate its ten-year sponsorship contract with the Swoosh. On the other hand, some Chinese basketball players have reportedly abstained from the game to avoid displaying the Swoosh on their shirts.
The whole issue revolves around alleged violations of human rights in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, also known as Chinese Turkestan, where the Chinese Communist Party is said to have set up “re-education” camps for Muslim minorities. About a month ago, the Chinese government agreed in principle to allow a visit to the Xinjjiang region by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ human rights chief, but made it conditional on providing “exchanges and cooperation rather than … so-called investigation based on ‘guilty before proven.’ It is now claiming that its treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang is somehow intended to prevent them from becoming islamic extremists.
Nike got blowback for a statement on its website that the company is “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential forced labor risks related to employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from XUAR, in other parts of China.” The statement denied allegations to that effect made a year ago by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “Nike does not have relationships with the Haoyuanpeng Clothing Manufacturing, Qingdao Jifa Group, Changji Esquel Textile or any of Esquel’s other facilities in the XUAR,” the statement reads.
According to local reports, at least a few users of the Chinese social media service Weibo posted images of burning Nike sneakers, while certain Chinese celebrities, such as the actor Wang Yibo, reportedly severed ties with the brand. According to the BBC, the social-media furor appears to revolve around a post – translated as “Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” – by the Communist Youth League, an offshoot of the country’s ruling Communist Party. According to Agence France Presse, Chinese celebrities have also been severing ties with Adidas and Uniqlo, which reportedly began boycotting cotton from Xinjiang last year. The Nike-owned brand Converse has come in for similar treatment.
Huawei Technologies, the leading Chinese supplier of smartphones, has removed the Adidas and Nike shopping apps from its app store. In contrast, China’s leading sports brand, Anta, told The South China Morning Post that it would continue to buy Xinjiang cotton and withdraw from the Better Cotton Initiative, in which Adidas, Nike, New Balance and many other brands have been participating.
On the other hand, it seems that Chinese e-commerce sites like Tmall and JD.com have stopped selling the products of H&M, one of the companies that has expressed “deep” concern at the reported violations of human rights, and that H&M has also closed some of its stores in the country. A Chinese actress, Zhou Dongyu, said that she was going to stop serving as an ambassador for Burberry because it had stopped using cotton from Xinjiang.
The controversy reminds us of the threats of boycott issued when the NBA defended a tweet in support of Hong Kong demonstrators. There again, there was no lasting effect on the NBA’s popularity in China or on the business in the country of its sponsor, Nike.
Anyhow, the boycott of Western brands appears to have been largely instigated by the Chinese government, in response to the sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union, the U.K. and Canada on high-ranking Chinese officials over the issue, which have resulted in the freezing their assets and restrictions on their travel. China’s immediate riposte to the EU’s action was to sanction ten European officials and four European institutions.