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Nike faces outrage storm in China over statement about forced labor

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Nike, a “woke” American company that has long been dogged by accusations that it benefits from forced labor in China, is reportedly among several companies that are facing China’s wrath for finally standing up to the communist nation, though it remains to be seen whether it possesses the temerity to not fold under growing pressure.

In the past few years Nike and several other retailers quietly issued statements expressing concern over Uyghur Muslims being forced to pick cotton in Xinjiang and vowing that none of their products were being produced there.

Nike’s statement, in particular, was published last year.

“The reported situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China is of a scale and complexity that is unprecedented in modern supply chains. We are deeply concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the XUAR. NIKE does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region,” the statement read.

“We have been conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from XUAR, in other parts of China. In FY20, NIKE took steps to further strengthen our audit protocols to identify emerging risks related to potential labor transfer programs of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities, from the XUAR,” it continued.

But for reasons that remain unclear, the statements just now surfaced this week and went viral in China — and in response, both the Chinese government and the Chinese people pounced, accusing the companies of trying to “smear” them.

The attacks began when the party’s Youth League on Wednesday called attention on its social media account to an H&M statement in March 2020 that it would stop buying cotton from Xinjiang in China’s northwest. The Swedish retailer, in words also used by some other brands, said it was ‘deeply concerned’ about reports of forced labor there,” according to MarketWatch.

On Thursday, a party newspaper, the Global Times, cited Burberry BRBY, Adidas, Nike and New Balance as having made ‘cutting remarks’ about Xinjiang cotton as early as two years ago. A separate Global Times report cited what it said was a statement by Zara that it had a ‘zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor.'”

These revelations from China’s state media and its proxies provoked an avalanche of outrage from Chinese celebrities, Chinese social media companies, Chinese e-commerce platforms, Chinese state broadcasters and everyday Chinese people.

Extremely popular singer Wang Yibo terminated his contracts with Nike and issued a statement via the social media platform Weibi accusing it of trying to “smear China.”

“From this day, our artist, Wang Yibo, will be terminating all collaborations with Nike. Our agency and Yibo strongly object to any words or actions that attempt to smear China,” his agents reportedly said in their own statement.

According to Yahoo News, it’s possible the termination of his contracts may have been motivated by “death threats” he’d received from Weibo users.

Another high-profile celebrity, actress Tan Songyun, reportedly also issued a statement on Weibo announcing the termination of her contracts with Nike.

Her manager added in a statement cited by AFP via Barron’s that she “resolutely opposes any bad behaviour of smearing and making rumours about China.”

As the anger spread, Weibo users reportedly began posting videos of themselves burning their Nike shoes and gear.

“I burned all my Nikes. This is a matter of national pride. We will not be humiliated,” one Weibo user wrote, according to Insider.

H&M also faced an incredible amount of Chinese wrath.

“Swedish clothing giant H&M’s products vanished from major Chinese shopping sites in apparent retaliation for its decision to no longer source cotton from Xinjiang, while state media shared calls for a boycott of its stores,” according to AFP.

“State media on Wednesday lashed out against what they called H&M’s ‘lies’ and ‘ulterior motives’, while a department store in Xinjiang’s Urumqi city demanded an apology from the company in a statement on Thursday. H&M’s brick-and-mortar stores have also disappeared from search results in a popular Chinese map app owned by Baidu.”

Interestingly, the behavior of China’s state media mirrors the behavior of America’s left-wing mainstream establishment press.

“How can H&M eat Chinese rice and then smash China’s pot?” one state television commentator reportedly asked.

Meanwhile, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, reportedly published an op-ed warning Western companies to be “highly cautious” and to not “suppress China’s Xinjiang,” lest they “undoubtedly arouse the anger of the Chinese public.”

With so much backlash being directed at them, will Nike and other Western companies stick to their guns or fold like other “woke” entities — think the NBA — have invariably been wont to do?

Vivek Saxena

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