China has launched a PR war with the help of celebrities who are breaking up with Western brands such as Nike, Burberry and H&M over their comments on labour conditions in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

A security guard stands outside a store of the Swedish fashion retailer H&M at a shopping complex in Beijing, China on March 25, 2021.
A security guard stands outside a store of the Swedish fashion retailer H&M at a shopping complex in Beijing, China on March 25, 2021. (Reuters)

China has launched a PR war on Western brands critical of alleged rights abuses against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, with celebrities severing ties to Nike and Adidas, H&M facing a boycott and Burberry dumped from a deal with a gaming giant.

"Chinese people will not allow some foreigners to eat China's rice while smashing its bowls," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday.

"The Chinese market is here... we open our hearts to welcome foreign companies... But we oppose malicious attacks on China based on rumours and lies, and harm to China's interests."

READ MORE: Nike sparks social media storm in China after Xinjiang statement

Why is China enraged? 

At least one million Uighurs and people from other mostly Muslim groups have been allegedly held in camps in the region, according to right groups, where authorities are also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.

It is one of the world's top cotton-producing areas feeding many Western garment brands with textiles.

But several firms have tried to put distance between their brands and Xinjiang cotton producers since the allegations emerged.

That has enraged China, which denies any abuses, insisting labour camps are in fact training programmes and work schemes that have helped stamp out extremism and raise incomes.

On Thursday celebrities, tech brands, and state media –– aided by outrage on China's social media –– piled in on several global fashion brands, as China's vast consumer market was mobilised against critics of Beijing.

Chinese TV stars Wang Yibo and Tan Songyun said they would end all promotional partnerships with Nike, after a year-old company statement was regurgitated online noting it was "very concerned" by the allegations of forced labour.

Similarly, Hong Kong star Eason Chan ended collaboration with Adidas, adding he "resolutely boycotts any acts stigmatising China".

READ MORE: Facebook finds China-based hacking operation targeting Uighurs

Stars end contracts

Statements from actors and pop stars cascaded out across the afternoon ending contracts with brands including Converse and Calvin Klein.

Gaming giant Tencent pulled a new "skin" project linked with Burberry on avatars in the Glory of Kings game, while Swedish clothing giant H&M's products vanished from shopping sites in apparent retaliation for its decision to no longer source cotton from the Uighur region.

Global brands are often consumed by PR crises in China after touching politically-sensitive subjects.

The NBA in 2019 was dropped by Chinese broadcasters after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

READ MORE: EU approves sanctions on China, Myanmar and Russia over rights abuses

H&M accused of being 'suicidal' in remarks 

Both Nike and H&M's statements were made last year.

But the online outcry suddenly spiked this week after Western countries joined forces to sanction several key officials from the region over alleged rights abuses.

H&M's 2019 China sales were $1.4 billion according to its latest figures, and it has more than 500 stores in the country.
Greater China is also among Nike's fastest-growing regions.

An outraged Beijing struck back with tit-for-tat sanctions as a war of words erupted between China and several European nations.

State media on Wednesday lashed out against what they called H&M's "lies" and "ulterior motives", while a department store in the restive region's Urumqi city demanded an apology from the company in a statement on Thursday.

The Global Times said H&M, which counts China as its fourth-largest market, had been "suicidal" in its remarks, as it evaporated from Chinese shopping apps.

READ MORE: Western leaders close ranks to counter China

US, China compared 

"This is definitely not some kind of nationalism, it is plain patriotism," said Hua.

For emphasis, she held up a black-and-white photo that she said depicted black slaves harvesting cotton in the United States and compared it to a bright, colour photograph of a cotton field under a blue sky in Xinjiang region.

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865.

H&M China in a statement on Wednesday night said it "does not represent any political position" and remains committed to long-term investment in China.

The Swedish retail giant's 2020 statement was no longer visible on its website on Thursday.

Nike did not immediately respond to AFP's request for comment.

READ MORE: US designates China's policy on Muslim Uighurs as genocide

Source: AFP