WESTERN COMPANIES ARE not the first multinationals to suffer the power of a ‘patriotic’ Chinese consumer boycott when they get caught in the crosshairs of a political dispute.
US and European apparel retailers such as Nike, Adidas, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Burberry are now getting the same treatment that South Korea’s confectionary-to-hotels conglomerate Lotte and Japanese carmaker Toyota were subjected to in the past.
They are being abandoned by Chinese consumers and celebrity endorsers, and ‘disappeared’ from social media marketing and retail outlets. Their own-brand stores may remain open, but they are empty of customers, who are turning to indigenous brands.
In this case, the core dilemma for Western firms is whether they should continue to use cotton from Xinjiang in their products and face Western consumers’ censure for condoning the use of forced labour and other human rights abuses against Uighurs. Or should they stop using it and face the loss of their lucrative Chinese markets through boycotts by Chinese consumers whose shopping patriotism is being whipped up by the government?
In January, the United States banned the import of cotton from Xinjiang, and the United Kingdom told domestic firms doing business in China that they would be fined if they cannot show their products are not linked to forced labour in the region. Then, earlier this month, those two countries were joined by Canada and the EU on sanctioning Chinese officials over Xinjiang.
China has retaliated with countersanctions and knows that turning the economic screws on Western companies is a potentially more powerful way to silence its critics, as evidenced by how it has bought the silence of Islamic governments over the treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
Western technology companies could be the next to be drawn into this as Xinjiang is a significant high-tech manufacturing sector feeding into global supply chains.
Beijing is defiantly maintaining in the face of international condemnation that accusations of cotton picked by forced labour and other charges of human rights abuses in Xinjiang are false. It describes its repression in Xinjiang as a campaign against terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
This Bystander can allow that authorities are sincere in their view. Many governments view the violent repression of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism as legitimate. Some take their expression within ethnic minorities as evidence of them as being inherent in ethnic identity, as Beijing does with Uighurs.
Its policy response now abandons any pretence of affirmative action and accommodation of ethnic sensitivities towards the Uighurs and instead actively and often forcibly promotes their assimilation into the culture and society of China’ majority ethnic group, Han Chinese.
This justification of its near-total elimination of the Uighurs’ traditional ethnic identity appears a disproportionate policy response from the perspective of liberal democratic values. However, Beijing has no ideological qualms about repression and is restrained in its use only by its assessment of what is feasible and effective in pursuing its goals. Hong Kong provides another case in point.
Similarly, it calculates that Western sanctions and criticism over Xinjiang are unlikely to approach a severity that would force it to change course. It is betting that many Western companies will self-censor and quitely press their governments not to censure Beijing over Xinjiang and only criticise Beijing when they judge they will pay a higher price in their home market for not doing so.