H&M and Nike said months ago that they were concerned about allegations that forced labor has been used to produce cotton in Xinjiang, but they’ve now been caught in an escalating firestorm that has erupted on Chinese social media over the past day.
Recent sanctions from the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union over Xinjiang have sparked a renewed pushback from the Chinese government, which calls the camps “vocational training centers” designed to combat poverty and religious extremism.
In the viral social media post about H&M, China’s Communist Youth League denounced the company’s stance.
“Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while trying to make a profit in China? Wishful thinking!” the post said.
The comments sparked a flood of criticism directed at H&M from Chinese social media users, including a viral hashtag which was read more than 1 billion times: “I support Xinjiang cotton.”
“H&M clothes are rags,” one of the most-liked Weibo comments said. “They don’t deserve our Xinjiang cotton!”
Actor Huang Xuan, who had been a brand ambassador for H&M since last April, publicly said he would no longer work with the company.
In a statement posted Wednesday night on Weibo, H&M said that it has always maintained high standards, as well as transparency, in its global supply chain.
“[This] does not represent any political position … H&M Group always respects Chinese consumers. We are committed to long-term investment and development in China,” the statement said. The company added it was working with “more than 350 manufacturers” in China. H&M declined a request from CNN Business for additional comment.
“Nike does not source products from [Xinjiang] and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region,” the statement said.
Soon after the Nike statement appeared on Weibo, Chinese singer and actor Wang Yibo said that he had cut ties with Nike and “firmly opposes any remarks and actions that smear China.” Nike did not immediately respond to a request from CNN Business for comment.
Over the past year, a number of Western companies have publicly announced they will examine their global supply chains to ensure they are free from Xinjiang cotton products after allegations of forced labor involving the region’s Muslim Uyghur people.
In December, the US government announced it would block all imports of cotton from Xinjiang over concerns they “may have been made by slave labor in some of the most egregious human rights violations existing today.”