In September, when Swedish fast fashion giant H&M said it would end its relationship with a Chinese supplier accused of using forced labor, several Chinese social media accounts. Note only to the textile industry. But overall, the moment passed without being ostentatious.
Half a year later, Beijing’s online outrage machine begins to function. This time, its rage is not exhausting.
The Communist Party’s youth wing denounced H&M on social media and posted an archived photo of slaves on a cotton plantation in the United States. The official news stores piled up their own memes and outraged hashtags. Patriotic web users have carried messages to different nooks and crannies of the Chinese Internet.
Within hours, a tsunami of nationalism hit H&M, Nike, Uniqlo and other international clothing brands, becoming the latest explosion of Chinese policies in the western region. Xinjiang, a major cotton producer.
The crisis faced by apparel brands is now too familiar to many foreign businesses in China. The Communist Party has for years used the country’s huge consumer market to force international companies to act on their own political sensitivities, or at least not openly dispute with them.
But the latest episode illustrates the Chinese government’s growing skill in hitting the angry storm of patriots to punish companies that violate the pact.
In H&M’s case, the timing of the rage appears not to have been anything the retailer has done, but rather the sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last week by the United States. , The European Union, Great Britain and Canada pertaining to Xinjiang. China has placed hundreds of thousands of region Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in training camps and used harsh methods to push them into employment with factories and employers. other movement.
“The hate festival part isn’t fussy; Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls, said. But “the ability to control it is getting better every day,” he said.
“They know how to unravel the government extremists, the nationalists,” Mr. Xiao continued. “They are doing very well. They know exactly what to do. ”
On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, dismissed the notion that Beijing had led the campaign to boycott H&M and other brands.
“These foreign companies refuse to use Xinjiang cotton purely because of a lie,” Zhao said at a press conference. “Of course this will cause dissatisfaction and anger among the Chinese people. Does the government even need to provoke and guide this? “
After the Communist Youth League sparked outrage last Wednesday, other government-backed groups and state news agencies set the flames.
They posted memes that suggested new meaning behind the letters H and M: mian hua (cotton), huang miu (ridiculous), mo hei (smeared). The Xinhua news agency posted an illustration depicting the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that expressed concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang, like a patterned two-handed blindfolded puppet. like an American flag.
Public opinion quickly attracted attention at Beijing’s highest levels. On Thursday, a State Department spokeswoman held up a photo of slaves in a US cotton field during a press conference.
The messages are amplified by those with a large following but largely on non-political social media.
Squirrel Video, a Weibo account dedicated to silly videos, shared the Communist Youth League’s original post on H&M with 10 million followers. A Chengdu utility blogger with 1.4 million followers shared a clip showing a worker removing a H&M sign from a shopping mall. One Beijing user who posted about TV stars highlighted the entertainers who have ended their contracts with Adidas and other targeted brands.
“China today is not a country that anyone can bully!” he has written to his nearly seven million followers. “We’re not asking for trouble, but we’re not afraid of trouble either.”
A fashion influencer named Wei Ya held a live video event on Friday about Xinjiang cotton street vendors. In her Weibo post announcing the event, she certainly tagged the Communist Youth League.
On Monday, news sites spread a rap video that combines the cotton issue with some of the most popular recent lines of attack against Western powers: “How a country where 500,000 people have died? because Covid-19 was able to claim a high position? “
One Weibo user posted a lush animated video that he said he worked all night on. It shows white hooded men pointing guns at black cotton pickers and ends with a gunshot.
“These are your foolish actions; We never will, ”one note reads.
Less than two hours after users shared the video, it was posted by the Global Times, a party-controlled newspaper known for its national tone.
Many web users who speak out in such campaigns are motivated by true patriotism, even as the Chinese government pays some partisan commenters. Others, such as the traffic-hungry blog accounts in China ridiculed as “marketing accounts”, are perhaps more pragmatic. They just want clicks.
In times of mass frenzy, it is difficult to tell where official propaganda ends and the search for profit opportunities begins.
“I think the line between the two is blurring,” said Chenchen Zhang, an assistant professor of politics at Queen Belfast University who studies Chinese internet discourse.
“Semi-nationalist theme; they bring a lot of traffic, ”said Professor Zhang. “Official account and marketing account, they are joined together and are all participating in ‘market nationalism’.”
Chinese officials are careful not to let the anger get out of hand. According to checks by China Digital Times, internet platforms have been diligently controlling search results and comments related to Xinjiang and H&M since last week.
An article on the Global Times calls for readers to “firmly criticize people like H&M for deliberately provoking, but at the same time, keep your mind and watch out for patriots who pretend to join the crowd to cause hatred . “
The Communist Youth League has been at the forefront in optimizing party messages to engage community participation. Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said its influence is growing as more and more voices in society seek to show loyalty to Beijing.
“They have more and more fans,” said Professor Fang. “And whether it’s other government agencies, marketing accounts or these nationalist influencers, they all pay attention to their position more closely and immediately follow. follow. “
The H&M uproar is believed to have had an unintended effect that has led many Chinese internet users to discuss the situation in Xinjiang. For many years, people often avoided the subject, knowing that the comments focused on the harsh aspects of China’s rule there could get them into trouble. To avoid censorship detection, many web users called the site not by its Chinese name, but by using the Roman letters “xj”.
But in recent days, some people have discovered for themselves why they still have to be cautious when talking about Xinjiang.
A beauty blogger told her nearly 100,000 Weibo followers that she had been contacted by a woman who said she was in Xinjiang. The unnamed woman said that her father and other relatives were locked up, and foreign news reports about the mass exercises are all true.
Within hours, blogger apologized for the “bad impact” her post had caused.
“Don’t just support Xinjiang cotton, support the people of Xinjiang too!” wrote another Weibo user. “Helping the people of Xinjiang to walk on the streets and not have their phone and identification checked.”
The post then disappeared. Its author declined to comment, citing concerns for his safety. Weibo did not respond to a request for comment.
Lin Qiqing Contribution research.