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International relations

H&M faces Vietnam boycott over South China Sea map

Backlash follows uproar in China over fashion retailer's Xinjiang stance

Vietnamese Twitter and Facebook users are calling for a boycott of H&M after the fashion retailer used a controversial map of the South China Sea on its website. (Screen shot from Twitter)

HO CHI MINH CITY -- H&M's attempt to mend fences in China after angering consumers there with its stance against forced labor appears to have triggered another boycott next door in Vietnam.

The Swedish fashion retailer drew Vietnam's ire after it posted a map on its website that depicts islands in the South China Sea as Chinese territory. Vietnam has a competing claim on the islands. H&M changed the map at the request of authorities in China, according to Vietnamese media.

Authorities in Shanghai said they summoned H&M's local unit last week to address an issue with a map on its website, though it is unclear if this is the same map as the one angering Vietnamese citizens.

In Vietnam, Twitter and Facebook users have been circulating images of a crossed-out map of China next to a map of Vietnam reflecting Hanoi's claims to the islands, and demanding the company apologize or have its 11 stores in the Southeast Asian country shuttered.

H&M did not immediately respond to Nikkei Asia's request for comment.

The company has been attempting to win back consumers in China, where it became a lightning rod for public anger after multiple foreign brands stopped carrying items made using cotton from Xinjiang because of reports of human rights and labor abuses in the Muslim-majority region. It has been the subject of boycotts, and a number of its physical stores have been forced to close by landlords since the controversy flared up. H&M stores even disappeared from leading mapping service Baidu Maps and ride-hailing platform Didi Chuxing.

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is a hot-button topic in Vietnam. Hanoi has been one of, if not the most, vocal governments pushing back against Beijing's claim to govern most of the sea, though the U.S. often calls for freedom of navigation in the region, calls which European powers have recently echoed.

An H&M store in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam seen in December 2020.   © Lien Hoang

The dispute is not just a matter of government interest, either. When maps of the region are published, the Vietnamese public looks closely to see how the islands are portrayed. Backlash has followed perceived slights from an array of institutions, from the Hollywood film "Abominable" to the maps in passports issued by Beijing. Even the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi was accused of misrepresenting the territorial issue in September, when it posted on Facebook a Vietnam map with the islands, only to later delete the archipelagos.

While the uproar in Vietnam adds to H&M's recent headaches in Asia, the company is just one of several multinationals caught up in the Xinjiang controversy. Nike, Adidas, Burberry and others are also struggling with the balance between retaining Chinese shoppers and complying with Western laws against forced labor and other human rights violations. The U.S., Canada, the European Union and the U.K. all slapped sanctions on China in March, citing the country's human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims.

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