Even if Chinese consumers might be easing up on the brands they forsook in March for past statements on Xinjiang, the U.S. and China’s diplomatic power struggle—and all its ensuing proxy spats—wages on.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), the chair and co-chair of the bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China sent a letter to the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) concerning contracts between NBA players like Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson and Chinese sportswear companies Anta, Li-Ning and Peak, all of which have affirmed they use cotton produced in China’s embattled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where forced labor is widely believed to be employed into the area’s cotton and textile sectors.
“The NBPA has taken a public stand with other professional sports unions against new legislation in state legislatures that could make it harder for citizens to vote, and for amplifying the voices of its members to speak out for justice and police accountability during the protests in the summer of 2020 and since,” Merkley and McGovern wrote. “Today we write to you on another issue of fundamental human rights facing your members.”
The pair’s letter, addressed to the NBPA president and Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul, and executive director, Michele Roberts, urged the organization “to work with its members to raise awareness” about what the U.S. government has deemed a “genocide” against Uyghur, Kazakh and other Muslim ethnic minorities and the role of “forced labor” in the production of products endorsed by NBPA members.
“We hope that the result of such efforts would be that the players would leverage their contracts with Anta, Li-Ning, and Peak to push these companies to end their use of Xinjiang cotton,” the letter added. “Short of that outcome, we encourage players to end their endorsement deals with these companies.”
Numerous NBA players currently partner with the Chinese brands named in Merkley and McGovern’s letter. The Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson and James Wiseman have both signed with Anta. The Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler reached a multi-year agreement with Li-Ning late last year. The Atlanta Hawks’ Lou Williams has a signature shoe with Peak.
In China, brands like Anta and Li-Ning have flourished at the expense of Western companies targeted by recent boycott calls. According to data from China Market Research, the two brands saw traffic increase 10 percent to 20 percent earlier this spring. Nike and Adidas, meanwhile, experienced traffic declines of 20 percent to 50 percent. However, by mid-April, the firm was already seeing a bounce back—at least at Nike. Adidas’ path forward, it noted, would be harder due to structural issues with its China business model.
Not all Western brands suffered during due to the boycott. Skechers, which has maintained its Xinjiang factory, reported no impact in its most recent earnings report. The brand has defended its factory, saying that it has audited it multiple times and found no indications of forced labor.
This claim has not convinced everyone. A group of nonprofits and a former Uyghur detainee filed a complaint in April with the public prosecutor’s office in Paris accusing Skechers and other brands of allegedly “encouraging and profiting” from the forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Merkley and McGovern specifically called out those companies relying on audits to defend Xinjiang sourcing. In fact, “it is not possible for credible labor audits to independently verify” the practices of supply chains tied to Xinjiang, they said.
“Labor rights organizations have warned that firms should not be conducting audits in Xinjiang as workers subjected to surveillance and the constant threat of detention cannot speak freely about their working conditions,” they wrote. “Indeed, auditing cotton production may do more to facilitate the continued use of forced labor in production than to eliminate it.”
China issues warnings on Nike, H&M products
The same day Merkley and McGovern sent their letter to the NBPA, China’s General Administration of Customs issued a warning notice flagging products from H&M, Gap and Nike as having quality and safety risks, creating new headaches for brands already reeling from the state-sanctioned consumer backlash.
The warning cited nine batches of children’s underwear from H&M, eight batches of babies’ tops from Ralph Lauren, two batches of children’s clothes and one batch of baby shorts from Zara, two batches of boys’ pajamas from Gap and one batch of boys’ T-shirts from Nike. In Ralph Lauren’s case, customs took issue with the item’s instructions for use. In every other instance, it cited problems related to color fastness, a term referring to a dyed good’s resistance to fading or running.
In its notice, the General Administration of Customs said it would destroy or return the impacted goods.
According to Newsweek, H&M and Zara were both cited in a similar notice sent out May 30, 2020. Neither Nike nor Gap were named in that warning, it said.
It is unclear whether these safety warnings are related to the ongoing dispute between China and Western countries over Xinjiang. H&M and Nike were two of the biggest brands targeted by Chinese consumers in March. Ralph Lauren, however, seemingly escaped scrutiny, despite it too having released a statement saying it does not source yarn, textiles or products from Xinjiang. Gap also avoided association with the boycott this spring, though its fate in the country remains up in the air for other reasons.
Meanwhile, Zara parent Inditex has faced scrutiny for not taking a hard-enough stance on Xinjiang. The same group that criticized Skechers in April also named Inditex in its complaint.