STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Seven months ago, the Swedish clothing brand H&M put out a statement saying it was troubled by allegations of forced labor in China's western region of Xinjiang. That's the region where authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghur and other historically Muslim ethnic minorities. This week, H&M has come under an intense storm of government-prompted criticism in China. And consumers there are now boycotting H&M. Here's NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It's Friday. And I'm outside one of H&M's flagship stores in Beijing, which is not far from the NPR office. And according to China's e-commerce sites, its online mapping services, this store does not exist. That's because just five days ago, the European Union, the U.S., U.K. and Canada, they put sanctions on China for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. And China put counter-sanctions on European and British entities. But this H&M store is a sign of a much more powerful flex. It shows China can marshal nationalism among its vast consumer base to boycott Western brands as retaliation. So what to do right now if you're a multinational brand in China?
MATTIE BEKINK: I think there's a lot of kind of internal, quiet deliberations about what this portends and how to respond.
FENG: That's Mattie Bekink, who runs the Economist group's corporate services in China. She meets with a lot of CEOs and says they're stuck between how to meet global ethical standards while keeping the China market happy.
BEKINK: Caution seems to be the name of the game at the moment. Everyone for the last few months, years has been trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the U.S., China. Trade tensions, tech rivalry, you name it - it seems unavoidable at this point. And I think that's what feels different now.
FENG: Muji, a Japanese lifestyle brand, actually came out this week to say we do use Xinjiang cotton. And Inditex, which is the parent company of big brands like Zara and Massimo Dutti, quietly removed its statement on Chinese cotton supply chains. Online posts condemning H&M for not using Chinese cotton have been share hundreds of millions of times in China. And the boycott campaign has clear official support from the state
HUA CHUNYING: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: On Thursday, Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, blamed Western companies for believing what she called rumors about Xinjiang cotton. Then she pulled out two A4 sheets of paper at a press conference. One had a picture of African American slaves on a Mississippi cotton plantation. And another had a picture of a modern Xinjiang cotton field.
CHUNYING: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: Two years ago, China briefly boycotted the NBA. Four years ago, it blocked South Korean brands. Almost 10 years ago, it boycotted Japanese cars. And today, it's European clothing brands China is boycotting. Right now, China is also developing powerful mechanisms to punish international companies that support Western sanctions against Beijing. But China doesn't even really need those. Boycotts are just as ruinous.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "LONELY OWL")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.