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H&M shops in China forced to close amid Xinjiang backlash

Government official lashes out at foreign brands for politicizing commerce

A security guard stands outside an H&M store in Beijing. Chinese consumers have launched a boycott against H&M and other foreign retailers that have ceased using Xinjiang cotton.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- Some H&M outlets in China have been forced by landlords to shutter their doors, while a government official said the Swedish fashion retailer and other foreign brands should refrain from politicizing business decisions, as the backlash continued against the company over its previous comments on forced labor in Xinjiang.

A person who answered H&M China's general phone line on Monday told Nikkei Asia that some of its stores had ceased operations but offered no further details. Phone calls made by Nikkei to the retailer's outlets in Shandong Province and Inner Mongolia confirmed closures under orders from landlords, but it was unclear if the closures would be permanent.

Local media reported that outlets in Heilongjiang and Jiangsu provinces have been shut since last Thursday, with one short video uploaded on Sina News' Weibo account showing H&M's outdoor billboard in the city of Dazhou in Sichuan Province being dismantled on Sunday. Meanwhile, searches for H&M on Baidu's mobile map and Didi Chuxing's ride-sharing mobile app were returned with a blank page, making it difficult for users to locate its retail stores.

Chinese companies and consumers have launched a boycott against H&M and other foreign retailers, including Nike and Gap, that have ceased using Xinjiang cotton in their apparel over claims of human rights violations involving China's Uyghur Muslim minority. As of Nov. 30, H&M operated 505 stores across China, accounting for 5.2% of its total net sales. That makes China the company's fourth-largest market after Germany, the U.S. and the U.K.

Comments made in a statement by H&M last year that it was "deeply concerned" over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang surfaced last week after the EU, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada imposed coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses in the region.

Chinese authorities on Monday continued to deny allegations of human rights violations. In a news conference organized by the country's foreign ministry in Beijing, a Xinjiang government official said the region had overcome the threat of violence and terrorist activities in the past with economic stability and prosperity, without elaborating.

"We hope that more foreign brands like H&M will be able to distinguish right from wrong," said Xu Guixiang, a spokesperson with the government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

"Chinese people, including those in Xinjiang, have expressed their indignation over the sanctions on relevant individuals and entities in Xinjiang by external forces under the pretext of human rights issues," Xu said, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Some companies have been compelled to take a position on the issue.

Chinese sportswear brands Anta and Li Ning have defended the use of Xinjiang cotton and won support from consumers. "Li Ning's products are always comfortable," one Weibo user wrote in response to news that the company would indicate "Xinjiang cotton" on its product labels. "This kind of domestic product is worth supporting."

Japan's Ryohin Keikaku, the company that operates lifestyle and fashion retailer Muji, also carries products made with Xinjiang cotton.

A spokesperson for the company told Nikkei in a statement last week that it has "conducted due diligence on companies in Xinjiang that are indirectly involved in the supply chain" on top of the usual monitoring practices for its direct suppliers, adding that it was "paying attention to recent reports about racism toward ethnic minorities and forced labor in Xinjiang" and had "deep concerns."

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