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Western companies face nationalist backlash in China over criticism from home countries

A new report released Friday details a pattern of abuse of Chinese workers along Beijing’s global development initiative, the Belt and Road. The West also accuses Beijing of exploiting ethnic minority Uighurs, using forced labor to produce cotton. Nick Schifrin reports how that Western criticism sparked a nationalist backlash in China, directed at Western companies.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a dark side to the Belt and Road program.

    China's massive program for global development rests on forced labor. And a new report today details the pattern of abuse. The West accuses Beijing of exploiting ethnic minority Uyghurs to produce cotton.

    Nick Schifrin reports how that Western criticism sparked a nationalist backlash in China directed at Western companies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Chinese social media, patriotism requires punishing perceived enemies. Last month, that enemy was Swedish department store H&M.

    A popular blogger ripped up what she called her last H&M blouse. And H&M's flagship in Beijing disappeared from Chinese mapping and e-commerce sites.

  • Man:

    I'm feeling good right now. I'm feeling good right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Chinese TV, aspiring pop stars were feeling good because their Adidas shirts were blurred after that company faced a boycott. And pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong looked lovingly for the last time at their Burberry scarves, also boycotted.

    In their place, Chinese blogger O Wang Xiao Ming told her million followers to buy Chinese.

  • O Wang Xiao Ming (through translator):

    Take advantage of this opportunity to give our domestic goods a chance. We will confirm that no one and no country can order us around.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The boycott was launched when China's Communist Youth League criticized H&M and other companies for last year's statements expressing concern that cotton from China's Xinjiang region was produced by forced labor.

    Eighty percent of Chinese cotton comes from Xinjiang. The U.S. and Europe say that Uyghurs involved in the process are forced into that labor, and they accuse Beijing of genocide against the Uyghur people.

    Two days before the boycotts, the U.S. and Europe launched coordinated sanctions.

  • Sec. Tony Blinken:

    We need to be able to bring the world together and speaking with one voice in condemning what has taken place and what continues to take place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beijing denies Western accusations. The Communist Youth League post read: "Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while trying to make money in China? Wishful thinking!"

    Beijing's backers bragged about Xinjiang cotton on the runway during China Fashion Week and stoked by Chinese state media. This was reported live from Xinjiang:

  • Kate Kui:

    So, Michelle, you can see, with us is a very prosperous Attican (ph) Square, and it's — this is exactly what is happening in Kashgar. There is definitely no genocide, so to speak — so Michelle, back to you.

  • Zheng Wang:

    Nationalism has become the new ideology in China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zheng Wang is a professor at Seton Hall's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He says Chinese influencers risk losing support if they don't reflect demands to be patriotic.

    Actress Victoria Song dropped her H&M endorsement, saying national interests are above all else.

  • Zheng Wang:

    No people, they want to be a target of the Internet nationally. So they don't want to be being blamed for not patriotic enough.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the boycott also reflects a more assertive Beijing. Under Xi Jinping, China is more willing to require companies to follow its rules and to claim Western hypocrisy.

    Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying:

  • Hua Chunying (through translator):

    This is a picture from the U.S. when Black slaves were forced to pick cotton in the fields. And this is a picture of Xinjiang's cotton field. The accusation of so-called forced labor in Xinjiang does not exist.

  • Michael Hirson:

    It does represent a tipping point. And some of it has to do with the particular issue of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs and the way that's being viewed in the West.

    But I think it also has to do with broader dynamics in terms of China's changing relationship with the West.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Hirson is the China practice head for the Eurasia Group and the former U.S. Treasury chief representative in Beijing.

    He says Western companies operating in China are caught between Beijing's demands for silence and Western demands to avoid forced labor.

  • Michael Hirson:

    They're facing two-way political risk right now. They're under pressure from home governments and stakeholders, like NGOs, to speak out on some of these values issues related to China. And then, of course, in China's market, they're under pressure from the government and also bottom-up pressure from Chinese citizens who are inclined to partake in consumer boycotts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    China has more middle-class potential consumers than the United States has population, and it remains the world's manufacturing leader.

    Many companies are bending to Beijing's pressure. By the end of last month, H&M China said it does not represent any political position and is committed to long-term investment and development in China. And its headquarters posted a statement saying it hoped to regain the trust of its Chinese customers.

  • Michael Hirson:

    For a lot of Western companies, the China market is both too large, and the political blowback in China is too acute. Many companies, if push comes to shove, are going to try to stay in the China market, and will probably risk a Western blowback over a blowback in China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. is trying to exert its own pressure.

    Customs and Border Protection are now conducting checks like this one of ships arriving in the U.S. with Xinjiang cotton and tomatoes. The Trump administration passed a regional ban. The Biden administration is implementing it.

  • Ana Hinojosa:

    We have been working very hard to protect — again, protect the American people, protect American businesses, and ensure that goods produced in whole or in part with forced labor are not entering our market.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ana Hinojosa is a Customs and Border Protection executive director.

    She says, since an initial ban on Xinjiang cotton passed in December, CBP has detained over 300 shipments to ensure they carried no cotton produced with Xinjiang forced labor. An additional 200 shipments turned around before they could be checked.

  • Ana Hinojosa:

    We have received very clear signals that this is just as much of a priority to this administration as it was to the previous administration.

    I think President Biden has been very clear that the issue of forced labor is something that is part of his trade agenda.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's not easy to know whether cotton is from Xinjiang or was made with forced labor. China mixes domestic and imported cotton and blocks companies from independent investigations. So, CBP is working on new tracing technology.

  • Ana Hinojosa:

    There's no silver bullet. But we are optimistic that there are some really good technologies that are helping answer some of those questions, and hopefully making things a little bit easier for businesses to stay compliant.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the meantime, Beijing will demand compliance to its rules. And while the West will object to Chinese human rights violations, there's little evidence that Beijing is willing to listen.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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