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Chinese Propaganda Officials Celebrate Social-Media Attacks on H&M in Countering Forced-Labor Allegations

By Eva Xiao 

Propaganda officials quietly celebrated in Beijing two days after a Chinese social-media post helped ignite a frenzy of outrage against Western clothing brands, according to people familiar with the matter, in what they saw as a victory in a new effort to inoculate China against criticisms from the West.

The furor that scorched Hennes & Mauritz AB's H&M, Nike Inc., Adidas AG and other boldface names of global retail, threatening them with lost revenues in one of the world's most lucrative consumer markets, began with a message from a blogger on China's Twitter-like Weibo service on March 23, according to an analysis by Doublethink Lab, a Taipei-based nonprofit that has researched online Chinese state disinformation. China fanned the flames the next day through state-media outlets and Communist Party-affiliated social-media accounts.

The campaign, directed at H&M and other companies over their expressions of concern about forced labor and discrimination against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority in China's remote Xinjiang region, came as Beijing draws lessons from what it considers a successful fight with the West over another hot-button issue, Hong Kong.

At a meeting late last month officials from China's Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party's Propaganda Department raised the example of Hong Kong, and talked about the need to push back on Xinjiang as international attention has shifted to the Uyghurs, according to people briefed on the proceedings.

After pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing authorities initially censored the news on the Chinese internet before reversing course and promoting protest images as evidence of an alleged plot by Western powers to destabilize China. The Communist Party has since cemented its grip on the former British colony, winning support at home despite opposition from Western governments.

As officials discussed responding in a similar manner on Xinjiang, the topic of cotton came up, two of the people familiar with the matter said. The possibility of pressuring foreign companies with business interests in China to advance Beijing's interests was also discussed.

Some scholars present at the meeting argued that Beijing needed to loudly refute every false story or statement about Xinjiang, the people said. Other scholars and political advisers suggested China should respond reasonably and with legal evidence if foreign companies published "improper statements" on Xinjiang, but that pressure should come from the public and industry, not the government.

The attacks on H&M and other Western brands appeared to follow the latter script.

Allegations that Beijing is committing crimes against humanity or genocide in the region, which it denies, have become a flashpoint in relations with Western nations. China's ruling Communist Party has become more aggressive about countering those claims and took to Twitter and Facebook more frequently than ever before last year to portray its policies as beneficial to the region.

In Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have targeted the region's mostly Muslim ethnic minorities with mass-detention internment camps and omnipresent surveillance as part of a campaign of forced assimilation. Beijing has denied all allegations of human-rights violations, instead describing the internment camps as vocational-training centers aimed at countering terrorism and religious extremism.

Despite the Chinese government's efforts, Western nations have grown more aggressive in attempting to punish China over Xinjiang. This month, the European Union imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for the first time in four decades for human-rights abuses against Uyghurs. The U.S., U.K. and Canada quickly did the same.

Beijing is pressing on. After lambasting Western broadcasters for their reports on Xinjiang, Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television is scheduled on Friday to air "The War in the Shadows," a 60-minute documentary it says will "reveal the reasons behind the Xinjiang's terrorism."

A group of United Nations experts issued a statement this week that suggests business involvement in Xinjiang will continue to be a source of conflict between Beijing and the West.

In the statement, members of the Human Rights Council's Working Group on Business and Human Rights said they had received information linking more than 150 Chinese and foreign companies to allegations of human-rights abuses against Uyghur workers.

"Businesses must not turn a blind eye to this and must conduct meaningful human rights due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles," the statement quoted Surya Deva, the group's vice chair, as saying.

Write to Eva Xiao at eva.xiao@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 31, 2021 15:48 ET (19:48 GMT)

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