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China Sanctions UK as Fashion Firestorm Rages

China slapped tit-for-tat sanctions on a number of British politicians and organizations Friday after the United Kingdom joined the United States, Canada and the European Union in targeting Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs imposed sanctions on four U.K. entities and nine individuals—including House of Lords members David Alton and Helena Kennedy—for “maliciously spread[ing] lies and disinformation” regarding the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Uyghur, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslim minorities, which several nations and organizations have denounced as human-rights abuses tantamount to genocide.

Those sanctioned will be prohibited from traveling and doing business in China, the ministry said. Their assets in the country will also be frozen, which is an escalation of the retaliatory penalties Beijing levied on European Union entities this week and on American politicians in January.

The sanctions list also includes British lawmakers Iain Duncan Smith, Tom Tugendhat, Neil O’Brien, Tim Loughton and Nusrat Ghani; lawyer Geoffrey Nice; anthropologist Joanne Nicola Smith Finley; law firm Essex Court Chambers; think tank Uyghur Tribunal; and the China Research Group of Conservative lawmakers.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry earlier this week said that the joint Western rebuke “flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, and severely undermines China-U.K. relations.”

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“China does not stir up trouble, but China is not afraid when others do,” Yang Xiaoguang, charge d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in London, said at a news conference. “China is not the first to shoot, neither will we be passive and submissive to threats from the outside. Today’s world is not the world of 120 years ago. The Chinese people will not be bullied.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter Friday morning that he stands “firmly” with those who were sanctioned, saying they played “a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims. Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental.”

Speaking on BBC News Friday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said China’s sanctions were “not going to stop the British government from speaking up about the industrial-scale human-rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang” and that Beijing should provide access to the United Nations commissioner for human rights if it insisted on making “blanket denials that nothing wrong is happening in Xinjiang.”

The strong-arming come just hours after Adidas, Burberry, H&M, Nike and Uniqlo were caught in a state-backed news and social-media firestorm calling for a boycott of brands that raised concerns about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang. The eruption of anger, which mingled threats with expressions of nationalistic pride, saw dozens of celebrity endorsers—including Huang Xuan and Victoria Song for H&M; Wang Yibo and Tan Songyun for Nike; and Eason Chan and Liu Yifei for Adidas—sever ties with the brands. Wuika Times Square, a mall in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, shut down an H&M store, writing on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, that the outlet will remain closed until the brand makes a “solemn apology to the people of Xinjiang.”

On Weibo and TikTok, some netizens filmed themselves cutting up H&M clothes or burning Nike sneakers. On Friday, the headline of the Global Times, a state-run English-language newspaper, read “Pure white Xinjiang cotton shouldn’t be tainted.”

By Thursday afternoon, it appeared that PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger; Zara owner Inditex; and VF Corp., which operates Timberland and The North Face, had scrubbed online public statements repudiating forced labor in Xinjiang and distancing themselves from suppliers in the region. (None of the brands have responded to requests for comments.) Meanwhile, Asics, Muji, Fila China and Hugo Boss posted their support of Xinjiang cotton on Weibo and reaffirmed its continued use.

“These brands’ behavior—like that of the numerous other brands that have remained silent on the issue of Uyghur forced labor—emboldens the Chinese government in its crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region,” the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, an assemblage of more than 180 human-rights and labor organizations across 36 countries, including the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, wrote in a statement Friday.

“Placing profits over human rights carries a major price,” it said. “Millions of consumers worldwide who do not want to be made complicit in Uyghur forced labor are going to be watching to see how companies react to this bullying. Will they reaffirm their opposition to forced labor and crimes against humanity or will they cave to pressure? This is a moral test for the world’s apparel brands. We will see who passes and who fails.”

Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn accounts for roughly 20 percent of the global cotton supply. The coalition estimated last July that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains fiber or yarn sourced from the Xinjiang region, meaning that “virtually” the entire fashion industry is “complicit” in forced labor in violation of so-called codes of conduct.

China slapped tit-for-tat sanctions on a number of British politicians and organizations Friday following a joint Western rebuke this week.
An H&M store closes and the brand logo has been covered by a red cloth in Urumqi city, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, 25 March 2021. Imaginechina via AP Images

“The global business community’s complicity in forced labor in the Uyghur region enables the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uyghur people,” it added. “As the realities of what is taking place in the Uyghur region continue to come to light, corporations will have to choose between appeasing the Chinese government in an attempt to hold onto market access or maintaining their Western consumer base, which is increasingly aware and critical of the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people.”

Though the long-term impact of the news and social-media campaign remains to be seen, it has walloped stock prices in the short run, with shares for Adidas, H&M and Nike all taking tumbles of several percentage points. Domestic sportswear producers, such as Anta Sports and Li-Ning, on the other hand, have seen upticks of between 8 percent to 10 percent.

U.S.-China relations are at another flashpoint, according to risk-management firm Verisk Maplecroft, which said at a webinar Thursday that there is a 58 percent probability that the United States and China will face off in a military confrontation in the next 12 months, “just shy” of the likelihood assigned to longtime strategic foes such as North and South Korea, or India and its nemesis, Pakistan. “Our state tensions model suggests that the outlook for U.S.-China relations in 2021 [is] pretty bleak,” said Hugo Brennan, principal analyst, geopolitics. The frequency of verbal conflicts between Washington and Beijing has “risen notably” over the past couple of years, he said, pointing out “diplomatic spats” over a range of issues, including trade, the race for tech supremacy, espionage, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and “of course the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“In terms of outlook, those hoping that the Trump presidency was some sort of aberration—and that U.S.-China ties were going to magically revert to a pre-2017 footing under Biden—will likely to be disappointed, in our view,” Brennan said. “Biden faces pressure from both sides of the congressional aisle to maintain a tough policy toward Beijing, and his characterization of China is as America’s most serious competitor.”

As the Biden administration continues to review the extent to which the United States is reliant on China for goods, global supply chains are “set to become more politicized in the coming decade, not less,” he added.