People walk by a H&M store on Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street on March 24, 2021 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Wang Gang/VCG via Getty Images)
Wang Gang | Visual China Group | Getty Images
GUANGZHOU, China — Swedish clothing retailer H&M disappeared from major Chinese shopping sites and mapping apps after resurfaced comments, reportedly from last year, about its concerns over alleged forced labor in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
A CNBC search for “H&M” and “hm” in English on Taobao, the e-commerce site run by Alibaba, and JD.com yielded no results. Meanwhile, Alibaba-owned mapping app Amap as well as Baidu Maps did not display any results for the search term “H&M.”
JD.com declined to comment when contacted by CNBC. Alibaba and Baidu were not immediately available for comment.
Xinjiang is home to the Uyghur Muslims, who have been identified by the United Nations, United States, United Kingdom and others as a repressed ethnic group. In their first coordinated move in response to allegations of forced labor, the U.S., European Union, Britain and Canada jointly imposed sanctions on Chinese officials this week over China’s alleged human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang.
H&M faced backlash from Chinese users on Twitter-like service Weibo who responded to a resurfaced statement by the retailer. Reuters said the statement was from last year. CNBC could not ascertain when the H&M statement was first published.
At the time, H&M said it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of forced labour” in Xinjiang, a cotton producing region, according to Reuters. The company said it did not source products from there.
That statement appears to have been removed from the Swedish retailer’s website. H&M was not immediately available for comment.
A joint statement by the U.S., U.K. and Canada this week said that evidence of human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang, “including from the Chinese Government’s own documents, satellite imagery, and eyewitness testimony is overwhelming.”
The countries cited forced labor as one of the features of “China’s extensive program of repression,” along with mass detentions and forced sterilizations.
China has repeatedly denied allegations of forced labor and other abuses in Xinjiang. The government says that facilities there that the U.S., U.K., Canada and human rights groups have characterized as internment camps are actually vocational training centers.
Asked at a press conference on Thursday if the Ministry of Commerce had ordered the e-commerce companies to ban companies like H&M, spokesman Gao Feng said: “Regarding some companies’ so-called business position on some false information, Chinese consumers have already responded with real actions.”
“(We) hope the relevant companies can respect market rules, adjust their wrong actions and avoid the politicization of business,” he said at the press event, according to a CNBC translation of his Mandarin-language remarks.
Gao added that foreign companies are welcome to conduct “normal operations” in China and invest and do business in Xinjiang.
It’s unclear why the old H&M statement resurfaced. But on Wednesday, a post by China’s Communist Youth League on Weibo showed a screenshot of the statement. The post accused H&M of spreading rumors about Xinjiang.
The hashtag “support Xinjiang cotton” was the top trending topic on Weibo on Thursday.
H&M was not the only international retailer facing the wrath of Chinese web users. Nike is also facing backlash.
The U.S. sportswear giant said in a statement it was “concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to” Xinjiang. Nike said it does not source products from the region and “confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from” Xinjiang.
It is unclear when Nike’s statement was published.
Chinese actor Wang Yi Bo cut ties with Nike after the online backlash, according to his management agency. Chinese actress Tan Songyun also cut ties with the company.
Nike was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.