China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats and state media have attacked Western governments online, rallying against what they term “hypocritical double standards,” while drawing attention to the West’s own legacy of historical injustice.
And all this has come as the government appears to be stoking a new wave of online nationalism.
Other businesses, including Nike, Adidas and Burberry, were soon dragged into the social media outcry, amid calls for a nationwide boycott. Posts containing an “I support Xinjiang cotton” hashtag on China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo, have been read more than 4.4 billion times.
With the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party just months away, an apparent line has been drawn for those wishing to negotiate or do business with Beijing — making clear that Western values are not necessarily compatible with access to the China market.
Under former US leader Donald Trump, tensions between Beijing and Washington rapidly escalated, with both sides imposing a series of retaliatory tariffs, sanctions and visa restrictions.
At the same time, the Chinese government faced allegations of serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where Washington alleges up to 2 million people from Muslim minorities have been detained in a network of camps across the region. China denies the allegations, insisting the camps are voluntary “vocational training centers” designed to stamp out religious extremism and terrorism.
The reset Beijing hoped for never came. Shortly before the Alaska meeting, the US announced new sanctions against officials in Hong Kong over the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil liberties in the global financial hub. At the meeting in Alaska on Thursday, US and Chinese officials feuded in front of the media.
In the wake of the Alaska meeting and new sanctions, Chinese officials and state media have escalated their attempts to deflect criticism by highlighting alleged human rights abuses in Western countries.
With political tensions again running high, business is among the few remaining bridges between the two sides. On Thursday, that too began to buckle under political pressure.
A post from the Communist Youth League, the Party’s youth wing, highlighted a statement by Swedish clothing giant H&M from September where the company said it was “deeply concerned” over reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, specifically around allegations of forced labor in the production of cotton.
H&M had its products pulled from e-commerce stores, and Chinese celebrities quickly dropped out of sponsorship agreements with the company under pressure from those online.
Social media users helped to track down other Western brands that had previously voiced concerns about alleged human rights issues in Xinjiang, with the backlash spreading to include Nike, Adidas and Uniqlo.
On Thursday, Japanese chain Muji appeared to change the labeling on its online store in China to highlight the cotton came from Xinjiang.
Global Times editor Hu said it was right for Chinese internet users to express their patriotism. “Let us mobilize various forces, give full play to their specific strengths and fight a people’s war to safeguard our sovereignty and dignity creatively,” he said in his editorial Friday.
In the past, however, diplomats and officials have usually presented a calm front in a bid to quell the patriotic anger and prevent major diplomatic and economic damage. This time around, the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy makes such a possibility seem less likely.
“The Chinese people wouldn’t allow foreigners to reap benefits in China on the one hand, and smear China on the other … we reject any malicious attack on China and even attempts to undermine China’s interests on the basis of rumors and lies,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday, referring to the H&M boycott.
The campaign online was “not nationalism” added Hua, rather it was “simply patriotism.”