In the past decade, consumer boycotts of foreign companies have become an increasingly common phenomenon in China. This study presents the first comprehensive overview of this development. Between 2008 and 2021, we have found evidence of 90 boycotts of foreign companies, the majority of which have occurred since the beginning of 2016. Most of the boycotts targeted companies from North America, Europe, Japan or South Korea that operate in the apparel, automotive, and food and beverages sectors.
Boycotts were most commonly triggered by company statements or actions perceived as challenging China’s governance in Hong Kong or sovereignty over Taiwan, or as unfairly criticising China’s human rights record in Xinjiang. Some boycotts were in reaction to business communications or marketing seen as prejudiced against China or the Chinese people, such as accusations of racism and cultural appropriation. Occasionally, foreign companies have been made scapegoats for geopolitical or human rights-related decisions made by the governments in their home countries.
There is public evidence that almost one-third of all boycotts were supported by party-or state-affiliated organisations. We argue that the state has also been instrumental in most of the remaining cases by encouraging “patriotic” behaviour through propaganda and leading consumers by example by lashing out at foreign companies that challenge China’s positions on Taiwan, Hong Kong or Xinjiang.
While more than half of all the targeted companies issued public apologies, there are several examples where apologies have failed to satisfy Chinese consumers and online campaigners. In some instances, apologies have encouraged a further backlash, through accusations of insincerity or being “two-faced”. Moreover, the likelihood of a company apologising varies according to topic. Most of the companies targeted for remarks related to Hong Kong and Taiwan issued apologies, while fewer apologised for statements made regarding Xinjiang. This could be a result of the comparatively high level of attention given to the Xinjiang issue by western audiences, and a realisation among foreign companies that apologising to China could entail reputational costs in other markets.
In 2021, many companies operating in Xinjiang were caught up in an irreconcilable battle of wills. On the one hand, western audiences were asking businesses to withdraw from the region following allegations of forced labour. On the other, Chinese consumers were lashing out against the companies that did so. As various media pay more attention to human rights and other issues that China deems sensitive, foreign companies could increasingly find themselves squeezed by conflicting pressures from western and Chinese markets. This will pose difficult questions about which markets they value most. Foreign companies are also under pressure from emerging high-quality domestic brands that might deprive them of their unique selling point in China and make them more vulnerable to consumer backlashes.
The 2021 boycott of the Swedish fashion retailer, H&M—one of the most extensive state-sponsored boycotts thus far—illustrates the state’s tendency to single out specific foreign companies for political purposes. This move was part of China’s retaliation for estern accusations of forced labour in Xinjiang and the sanctions imposed on Chinese actors involved in human rights abuses in the region. H&M may have stood out as an attractive target for several reasons. First, it had a leading position in the Better Cotton Initiative, a grouping at the centre of the controversy, and was one of the members that voiced concern about human rights abuses in Xinjiang early on. Second, H&M’s home nation is Sweden, whose government has in the last four years made several decisions that has drawn criticism from China. Lastly, H&M operates in an industry where there are many alternative domestic brands which makes it appear as a low-cost target.
As the world’s largest consumer economy, China provides one of the most attractive markets for multinational companies. However, businesses seeking to capitalise on the significant purchasing power of Chinese citizens are facing new challenges because of a growing number of consumer boycotts in the country. As some of these movements have been sponsored by the Chinese state, this development also raises questions for foreign governments that seek to ensure fair and equal treatment for their companies based in China.
There have been several detailed case studies of Chinese consumer boycotts of foreign companies, as well as reviews of episodes where such movements have been used as a form of coercion against third countries. Thus far, however, no study has provided a comprehensive overview of Chinese consumer boycotts of foreign companies in recent years.
This study has sought to identify and collect data on all the consumer boycotts of foreign companies between 2008 and 2021. We define consumer boycotts as instances where Chinese citizens mobilise on social and traditional media to call for consumers to refrain from purchasing products or services from a specific company. Using this definition, we have identified 90 consumer boycotts of foreign companies in the defined period and collected data on a number of variables, such as the home nation of the targeted company, the stated motive for or trigger of the boycott, the level of state involvement and the frequency of apologies by the targeted companies. To separate instances of individual social media posts from wider movements that would qualify as a boycott, we have used reporting by international media as a proxy. In essence, we assume that boycotts reported by well-established media channels with global coverage are at the level that would qualify as a mobilisation, and thus a boycott according to our definition.
The study is based on open-source English- and Chinese-language news items and other publicly available materials, such as company statements and social media posts. We have also drawn on open access literature in the form of academic journals and think tank reports. Sources were identified using both Chinese and western search engines, as well as newspaper archives. As our review is primarily based on English- and Chinese-language items from established international media, we do not claim to have identified all the boycotts in the defined period. It possible that some boycotts did not draw much media attention. It is also possible that additional boycotts of companies from non-English speaking countries were reported only in local languages. We can therefore only say with certainty that at least 90 boycotts have occurred since 2008.
We begin this study by discussing the increase in the number of Chinese consumer boycotts over time, what typically triggers them, and which countries and industries are most vulnerable. We then explore how the Chinese state has encouraged and participated in consumer boycotts through interactions with netizens, media and consumers. Next, we investigate the frequency of apologies and how they have been received. To illustrate the full extent of restrictions that companies can be subject to, the study provides an in-depth examination of the boycott of H&M, one of the most extensive state-supported consumer boycotts in China thus far. Finally, we offer four concluding observations about the dynamics of Chinese consumer boycotts and the role of the state.
Consumer boycotts of foreign companies in China, 2008–2021
Our data shows that the number of consumer boycotts of foreign companies has increased significantly in recent years (see Figure 1). Between 2008 and 2015, there were two small peaks (in 2008 and 2012), but since 2016 there has been a steady increase with a significant spike in 2019. These peaks are all connected to specific political events.
Figure 1: Consumer boycotts and their triggers, 2008–2021
Most boycotts are connected to political events
In 2008, many western governments criticised the Chinese government’s crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. During the Olympic torch relay in Paris, protests broke out against China’s treatment and persecution of Tibetans. President of France Nicolas Sarkozy subsequently declared that he would not attend the upcoming Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing and the city of Paris made the Dalai Lama an honorary citizen, which prompted Chinese students to boycott French brands. Among the primary targets were companies closely associated with France, such as the retail company Carrefour which at the time had over 100 branches in China.
In 2012, political disputes between China and Japan over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islets resulted in anti-Japan protests across China. Protesters vandalised Japanese shops and consumers boycotted Japanese companies, especially in the automotive industry. In 2016, South Korea announced that it would install the US missile defence system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on its territory, which led to boycotts of South Korean companies. The most severely impacted business was the retail company Lotte, which had provided land for the installation of the new system. The Chinese authorities invoked fire security concerns as they closed 23 of Lotte’s shops.
In the 2008 and 2012 boycotts, companies were made scapegoats for the actions of their home nations, which has also occurred in recent years. Such mobilisations have occasionally been supported by the Chinese state as a method of retaliation against perceived provocations by foreign governments, effectively acting as an alternative to resorting to legal action or other official measures. At other times, consumers seem to have boycotted companies from the disputed country without any immediate encouragement from the state. Overall, these episodes illustrate that businesses with a well-known national identity could be at higher risk of being subjected to “scapegoat boycotts”.
Since 2016, most of the boycotts have concerned issues related to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Xinjiang. n 2018–2019, several companies faced public criticism when employees or the firm’s leadership expressed opinions that were interpreted as supportive of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong or of Taiwan’s independence. In connection with these events, several foreign companies that listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as regions separate from China on their websites were urged by the Chinese authorities to edit their definitions to bring them into compliance with Beijing’s territorial claims. Various fashion brands, such as Coach, Versace and Gap, faced a consumer backlash after they produced T-shirts that omitted Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau from the illustrations of China in their designs. Pictures of these products circulated on Chinese social media and were sometimes relayed by state- and party-affiliated media to incite further boycott campaigns.
Conversely, in 2020 several US and European retail brands with operations in China were accused by western audiences of being implicated in forced labour by having supply chains in Xinjiang. Many of the designated retailers, such as H&M, ZARA, Nike and Adidas, responded to these allegations by expressing concern about human rights violations against Muslim minorities in the region. In addition, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a multi-stakeholder governance programme that promotes sustainability in cotton production, of which many of the criticised companies are members, suspended cotton sourcing from the region. This in turn sparked strongly negative reactions from Chinese netizens against the companies and the BCI. A few companies that took no clearly stated position on the issue were also caught in the crossfire and faced a consumer backlash.
Chinese consumers have also accused foreign companies of holding prejudiced or racist views on China’s culture and society. For example, Dolce & Gabbana was widely criticised in 2018 after it released promotional videos featuring a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. In the same year, the Canadian sports brand Lululemon faced a similar reaction when its art director posted a picture of a T-shirt depicting a rice box with bat wings and chopsticks together with the words “No thank you”. Protests of this type have also been directed at Amazon and the Taiwanese branch of Burger King for using terminology suggesting that Covid-19 originated in China.
Figure 2: Boycotts by trigger, 2008–2021
The growing number of consumer boycotts, especially those targeting US and European companies (see Figure 4), seems to be connected to a general rise in online nationalism. Overall, online criticism of behaviour seen as insulting to China has grown in popularity in the Chinese information environment since at least 2016. As the presence of younger people online is comparatively high, this trend could be connected to increasingly hawkish views among the younger generation, which have been documented by some surveys.
The rise of the internet appears to have given certain groups of Chinese citizens an opportunity to find “nationalistic purpose” by voicing their concerns about the behaviour of foreign companies on social media. Importantly, a group referred to as “little pink” (小粉红) seems to have played a significant role in setting the tone for digital activism on Chinese social media. It consists of hyper-nationalist young people, mostly students who are known for lashing out against anyone they perceive to be an enemy of China.
The concept of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” is a recurring theme of Chinese consumer boycotts. Historically, this expression has been used by Chinese officials to condemn imperialistic behaviour from countries that are perceived to have undermined China’s status as a rising power. Today, the concept is frequently employed in China’s foreign policy discourse and in the media to express discontent when China is presented in a negative light by foreign governments or companies.
Many of these nationalistic messages target western countries. Warnings about the influence of “western values” have become an important component of the Chinese government’s propaganda, including through educational campaigns targeting younger generations. As feelings of animosity are known to play an important role in boycotts, it would not be surprising if such anti-western rhetoric has contributed to a rise in the number of boycotts.
Figure 3: Boycotted companies by industry, 2008–2021
Studies have shown that companies operating in highly competitive sectors are more likely to be boycotted. It is therefore not surprising that many of the targeted companies operate in sectors where local Chinese alternatives have been growing quickly. For example, the food and beverages industry is one of China’s fastest expanding industries. In addition, the clothing, cosmetics and automobile industries, where foreign companies are frequently boycotted, all have domestic equivalents that have been growing rapidly.
A shift away from foreign brands to domestic alternatives already seems to be under way among some segments of Chinese consumers, especially among millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), and generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), who have accounted for 60 percent of China’s growth in consumption in recent years. The phenomenon of “guochao” (国潮, “national tide”), which propagates the expression of “cultural confidence” through consumption, has become popular among these younger generations. Interest in guochao products, which are infused with Chinese cultural elements, has been steadily increasing since 2018 and many Chinese brands now incorporate such elements to increase their sales. A survey by McKinsey & Company found that the proportion of Chinese consumers who say they prefer Chinese brands over foreign ones increased from 15 percent in 2011 to 85 percent in 2020.
In sum, this suggests that the increase in the number of consumer boycotts may be driven in part by the fact that local Chinese brands are increasingly giving young consumers the choice to express their nationalistic sentiment through consumption without having to give up their access to high-quality goods.
Consumer boycotts most frequently target US companies
According to our data, Chinese consumer boycotts most frequently target companies from North America, Europe and Northeast Asia. The United States (27 instances), Japan (11 instances) and France (11 instances) top the list followed by Germany (8 instances) and South Korea (6 instances).
Figure 4: Home nation of boycotted companies, 2008–2021
There may be several reasons why US and European companies are commonly targeted. First, the human rights situation in Xinjiang and China’s policy on Hong Kong and Taiwan have received increased attention from governments, civil society organisations and the public in North America and Europe. On several occasions, this has put pressure on companies to clarify their stance on China’s policies, which has in turn prompted nationalist reactions from Chinese consumers. Boycotts related to Xinjiang are the best-known example.
Second, growing tensions in US-China relations could have heightened feelings of animosity towards the US among Chinese consumers, especially since the trade war in 2018. In a 2020 survey, 77 percent of the Chinese public responded that they felt to some degree unfavourably towards the US and 56 percent said that they would refrain from purchasing US products to support China’s position on the trade war.
Third, US and European companies sometimes appear to lack an understanding of the cultural sensitivities of the Chinese consumer base and what is considered “politically correct” in the country. Observers have suggested that this is a common reason why foreign companies fail in the Chinese market. Moreover, the fact that so many companies issue apologies after they are subjected to a boycott suggests that they often fail to anticipate political risks and the consequences of their actions.
The high number of consumer boycotts of Japanese companies could be an expression of China’s profound “Japan complex”. Despite the growth in economic ties between China and Japan, the collective memory of the Japanese occupation and oppression lingers in the public discourse, and Japan’s territorial claims are frequently propagated in the Chinese media as encroachments on Chinese territory. With regard to South Korea, the majority of boycotts were related to the installation of the US THAAD system, as mentioned above.
There is evidence of state involvement in almost one-third of all consumer boycotts
On a few occasions, party- and state-affiliated organizations have initiated consumer boycotts by condemning the behaviour of businesses in both social and the traditional media, and Chinese netizens have subsequently mobilised in support of such positions. For example, the government-affiliated Chinese Basketball Association announced in 2019 that it would no longer work with the North American National Basketball Association (NBA) after the general manager of the Houston Rockets expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. This sparked a wave of nationalistic protests and a boycott of the NBA.
At other times, party- or state-affiliated organisations have supported ongoing consumer boycotts, including by encouraging citizens to participate. In 2019, for instance, a lawyer at BNP Paribas condemned pro-Beijing counter protests in Hong Kong on Facebook. The post circulated on China’s most popular social media platform, Sina Weibo, and was later picked up by the Communist party-owned newspaper, Global Times, which called for netizens to boycott the bank and campaign for it to be placed on China’s forthcoming “unreliable entity list”, a legal framework for economic sanctions.
Figure 5: State support in consumer boycotts, 2008–2021
Most consumer boycotts are directly or indirectly encouraged by the state
While we have found evidence of state support for almost one-third of all boycotts, this figure likely underestimates the degree of involvement by the Chinese authorities. Importantly, we have relied on open sources, which means that we have not been able to identify instances of state involvement where the actor in question does not have an obvious state affiliation.
Even if we assume that our review has identified all the boycotts that were directly supported by the state, there are at least three reasons to believe that the state played a significant role in the remainder of the cases. First, the state exercises tight control over the online sphere and traditional media. Censorship and the suppression of political mobilisations are widespread. It is therefore safe to assume that boycotts that are not suppressed are perceived by the state as not running counter to its interests and priorities.
Second, the Chinese state has for a long time encouraged “patriotic” behaviour among its population, including through promises of a “national rejuvenation” whereby China recovers its pride following the “century of humiliation” by foreign powers. This has been coupled with more assertive propaganda that reminds the Chinese public that Taiwan is an integral part of China, that the protests in Hong Kong are illegitimate, and that recent events in Xinjiang are necessary to combat extremism, among other issues related to China’s so-called core interests. Connected to this is the idea that any criticism from foreign powers on these issues constitutes unacceptable meddling in China’s internal affairs. In this context, it cannot reasonably be seen as a coincidence that the majority of boycotts have been triggered by company statements or actions that cross the specific red lines defined by the state on these topics.
Third, there is reason to believe that the state has been leading consumers by example on several occasions, by either penalising or criticising companies. In 2018, the Civil Aviation Administration of China demanded that a number of international airlines alter their portrayal of Taiwan on their websites from a separate country to a province of China. In the following year, Chinese netizens incited boycotts of multiple foreign companies for portraying Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate regions on their websites, something which seems to previously have gone unnoticed by Chinese consumers. It appears that by punishing a company for crossing China’s red lines, the state set an example for consumers to follow, which subsequently led consumers to boycott other companies perceived as crossing the same lines.
In sum, we believe that the Chinese state’s permissive approach to nationalistic boycott movements, its long-term promotion of “patriotic” behaviour through propaganda and its public criticism of foreign companies that cross China’s red lines have played an important role in encouraging boycotts in recent years.
More than half of the boycotted companies apologise
More than half of the targeted companies issued public apologies to avert or mitigate the effects of boycotts. These apologies typically contained wording such as: “we resolutely respect and uphold China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, “we have nothing but respect for China and the people of China” or “we uphold China’s one country two systems policy”.
When the alleged mistakes of a company are connected to a specific employee, there is a tendency among businesses to divert the blame to these individuals in their apologies. For example, they might issue statements apologising for the “confusion”, stating that the action or statement was unauthorised and does not constitute an accurate reflection of the company’s opinion. In some cases, companies have terminated the individual’s contract to demonstrate their position on the issue.
Figure 6: Rate of public apology from boycotted companies, 2008–2021
The pitfalls of apologising
Many of the targeted companies rapidly issue an apology, followed by silence, in the hope that this course of action will mitigate or pacify the boycott. However, apologising is no guarantee of saving the company from a further backlash. In fact, many apologies have been seen as insincere by Chinese consumers while others have backfired by drawing further attention and criticism. For instance, in the light of the controversy surrounding Xinjiang, Intel initially urged its suppliers not to source products or labour from the region. When the company later apologised for this action, it was mocked by online users. One comment noted: “A mistake is a mistake! Retract the statement about Xinjiang!” ZARA took a similar stand and when the company later withdrew the statement to appease Chinese consumers, it faced a further backlash on Chinese social media.
It is also unclear whether companies that apologise fare any better economically than those that remain silent. For example, Hugo Boss and Burberry were both boycotted following statements related to Xinjiang. Hugo Boss apologised while Burberry declined to comment, but neither faced any significant losses in sales. These and other episodes illustrate that switching positions seems to be particularly fraught with risk in China’s online spheres. When Hugo Boss later decided to retract its apology, on the grounds that it was “unauthorised”, the company faced a further online backlash. One social media user observed: “A two-faced person is the most disgusting. I will boycott you forever”.
An unwillingness to apologise over issues related to Xinjiang
Most of the companies targeted over remarks on Hong Kong and Taiwan have issued public apologies, but far fewer have apologised for statements made on Xinjiang. For example, Walmart was boycotted in 2018 over a sign in one of its Chinese stores that listed Taiwan rather than China as the origin of some of its products. The company apologised on that occasion but when it was boycotted in 2021 for removing all Xinjiang-sourced products from its stores, it did not.
Figure 7: Rate of public apology according to trigger, 2008-2021
This unwillingness to apologise could be related to the sensitivity of the Xinjiang issue in markets outside of China. To apologise for a statement expressing concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang could well be met with a strong backlash from the company’s consumer base in Europe and North America, where concern about forced labour in Chinese supply chains has been on the rise. While many companies might be willing to accept the reputational cost of being seen as less supportive of Hong Kong’s special status or Taiwan’s sovereignty, it is much harder to imagine that they would be comfortable with accusations of being implicated in what some western parliaments and governments have labelled genocide.
The consumer boycott of H&M
The consumer boycott of H&M is one of the most extensive state-sponsored boycotts in China thus far. The actions taken against the Swedish fashion retail company in 2021 are an example of the breadth of measures to which a company that has been singled out by the Chinese state can be subjected. The boycott also illustrates the dynamism of Chinese social media as well as the state’s ability to instrumentalise this environment for political purposes. The following case study should not be seen as an example of a typical consumer boycott in China, but rather as an episode where the state’s involvement was unusually overt and extensive.
Timeline: Important moments in the boycott of H&M
Xinjiang, forced labour and the Better Cotton Initiative
Xinjiang, China’s largest region, produces roughly one-fifth of the world’s cotton. In recent years, a growing number of reports have presented evidence that there are internment camps in the region, detaining over one million ethnic Uighurs, and that the human rights of the workers involved in cotton production are being violated. The Chinese government claims that the camps in question are “re-education” facilities for individuals at risk of extremist behaviour.
In March 2020, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) suggested that at least 82 large global companies, including H&M, Nike and Apple, rely on supply chains with factories that employ forced labour from Xinjiang. Many of the companies mentioned are members of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a non-profit, multi-stakeholder governance programme launched in 2005 on the initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to promote sustainability in cotton production. The BCI responded in March by suspending its licensing and assurance activities in the region. Two months later, the group suspended all licensing for exports from Xinjiang. Members consequently had to decide whether to follow the guidance and stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang or leave the BCI. Most companies followed the guidance, with the notable exception of the Chinese brand Anta Sports, which left the BCI the following year.
In September 2020, H&M announced that it would stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang and phase out its relationship with the implicated company, Huafu Fashion Co in Anhui Province. On its website, H&M said that it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labour”. The company also referred to the BCI’s statement: “BCI has decided to suspend licensing of BCI cotton in XUAR [Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region]. This means that cotton for our production will no longer be sourced from there”. 
The Chinese Communist Youth League initiates the boycott
It was not until six months later, in March 2021, that H&M’s statement began drawing criticism on social media platforms. On 23 March, an online user posted pictures of H&M’s statement on Weibo saying that H&M was the only company to ban Xinjiang cotton, and that the company had jumped to conclusions and wanted to cause problems. The boycott began one day later when the Chinese Communist Youth League shared images of the same statement together with a picture of the BCI statement on its Weibo account. The post, which accused H&M of spreading lies about Xinjiang cotton, garnered 430 000 likes and was shared 380 000 times.
Xinjiang-related hashtags such as “#I Support Xinjiang Cotton” (#我支持新疆棉花#) and “#What Kind of Organization is BCI?” (#BCI是什麽组织#) began trending online. On the same day, H&M’s products became unavailable on five leading Chinese e-commerce platforms and the company disappeared from Chinese location services such as Baidu Maps and Apple’s location service in China. While we have no evidence that this was a state-supported action, the fact that H&M was excluded from leading platforms on the same day as the Youth League post suggests that the action was coordinated by a central authority.
Other party- and state-affiliated organisations pile on
The state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) soon joined the calls, accusing H&M of having double standards by attacking and lying about China while at the same time earning profits from the country. A CCTV reporter stated: “Today, many netizens are reacting to a statement by a famous Swedish clothing company, making groundless accusations about the rights of workers in Xinjiang”. The state news agency Xinhua also shared an image suggesting that H&M was an acronym for “absurd” (huāng miù, 荒谬) (see Figure 8).
In late March, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, posted an image on Weibo with the trending hashtag “#I Support Xinjiang Cotton”, where the letters “H” and “M” in the word for cotton (mián huā, 棉花) were illustrated as the H&M logo (see Figure 9). The image was shared over 36 million times. It is unclear whether these images were created by Chinese online users or state actors. The People’s Daily also reposted a rap video containing criticism of H&M.
Several Chinese influencers and celebrities ended their contracts with H&M. These decisions drew support from fans, including through trending hashtags such as “Xiao Zhan supports Xinjiang cotton” (#肖战支持新疆棉花#). Wei Ya, (薇娅), a fashion influencer, organised a virtual event promoting products made with Xinjiang cotton and tagged the Communist Youth League in a Weibo post.
Officials support the movement but deny state involvement
On 25 March, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (华春莹) framed the boycott as a legitimate response by the Chinese people to condemn “malicious lies concocted by a few anti-China forces”. She added that “nothing will prevail over the will of the Chinese people. Anyone who offends the Chinese people should prepare to pay the price … These enterprises get to decide what they should do. The Chinese people also get to express their thoughts freely”. The foreign ministry denied that the government was involved in the movement. Spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) suggested that the Chinese people did not need to be “instigated” or “led” by the government as the “rumours and discredit” concocted by foreign companies “are the best patriotic education” for the Chinese people.
In an interview with Swedish media, the Chinese ambassador to Sweden at the time, Gui Congyou (桂从友), expressed his support for the foreign ministry’s claims and said that the government “acts on the will of the people”. However, very few online users had taken any notice of H&M’s statement prior to the Youth League’s post. The Youth League appears to have led consumers by example, causing them to target H&M and several other companies that had made similar statements. Contrary to Gui’s assertion, therefore, it appears that the people acted on the will of the government rather than the other way around.
Part of a response to western sanctions
It is almost certainly no coincidence that the boycott was initiated by the Communist Youth League on 24 March. Only two days before, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, among others, had imposed sanctions on Chinese officials connected with human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China responded with unprecedented sanctions against European and US actors, including a central decision-making body of the EU, the Political and Security Committee. A further indication that the boycott was part of China’s response to the western sanctions is that at a press conference in response to the sanctions on 29 March, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang region declared his hope that “more companies like H&M will keep their eyes open and distinguish right from wrong”.
H&M has not publicly responded to Chinese consumers’ call for an apology. On 31 March 2021, H&M stated that its commitment to China remained strong and that it was dedicated to regaining the trust and confidence of customers, colleagues and business partners. The statement made no reference to Xinjiang and was criticised in the Chinese media. CCTV claimed that the statement amounted to a “second-rate public relations essay that lacks sincerity and is full of empty words”. H&M’s statement appears to have been an attempt to repair ties with Chinese consumers while avoiding making an apology, which could have sparked a backlash in other markets. H&M has not discussed the topic further in public and the company website has ceased to carry a link to its Xinjiang-related statement from 2020, although the text can still be accessed through the page’s direct address.
Why was H&M singled out?
Several other members of the BCI, including Nike, Adidas, Gap and ZARA, issued statements similar to H&Ms in which they pledged not to use Xinjiang cotton. Many of them were targeted by consumer boycotts, but none faced pressure comparable to that on H&M. It is the only company to have its statement picked up and shared by a state-affiliated organisation and its products and location removed from online platforms.
Several factors can help to explain why H&M was targeted. First, the fact that H&M had a leading role in the BCI and voiced concern about Xinjiang early on may have made it stand out among other companies. H&M is one of the BCI’s initiators and sources the largest volume of “better cotton”. The company also responded to allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang as early as July 2019, stating that the “H&M Group does not accept forced labour being used anywhere in our value chain, including cotton cultivation.…We are investigating all production facilities [in Xinjiang] to get the full picture”. In addition, H&M’s statement in 2020 was among the more critical by group members, as it clearly voiced concern about the alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. At the time, other companies, such as Adidas, merely tried to deflect responsibility by stating that they had not found any cases of forced labour in their supply chains. Others simply stated that they did not source cotton from Xinjiang, without giving any specific reason.
A second factor that may have made H&M appear as a suitable target is that the company’s home nation is Sweden. At the time of the boycott, China’s relations with Sweden had been tense for several years, in part because of the harsh diplomatic style of the Chinese embassy in Stockholm. Between 2018 and 2021, the Chinese government threatened Sweden with punitive economic measures on several occasions. For example, the ambassador, Gui Congyou, said in 2019 that China would impose “restrictions” on economic and trade relations with Sweden after the Minister for Culture attended a ceremony where a human rights award was given to Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen held in China since 2015. Shortly after, China restricted its cultural exchanges with Sweden.
In 2020, the Chinese foreign ministry responded to Sweden’s decision to exclude Huawei and ZTE from its 5G telecommunications networks by saying that Sweden should “correct its mistake and avoid negative impact on China-Sweden economic cooperation and the Swedish businesses operating in China”. The ambassador clarified that the decision could indeed “negatively affect China-Sweden practical cooperation and the operation of Swedish companies in China”. Ericsson, a Swedish company that provides leading 5G technology, later reported that it had lost a significant share of the market in China.Although the boycott of H&M was not preceded by any specific threat directed at Sweden, it is not inconceivable that the company was singled out to impose an additional cost on Sweden or put further pressure on the government to reduce its criticism of China.
A third factor is that H&M may have appeared as a low-cost target for China as there are many alternative brands available in H&M’s market segment. Even prior to the boycott, H&M had experienced little or negative growth in China and was struggling to adapt to Chinese consumer habits. As discussed above, companies that operate in competitive industries are typically more vulnerable to consumer boycotts. One social media user wrote: “For you, China is still an important market… But for China, you are just an unnecessary brand”. This view may have partially been reflected among local government officials, as H&M had reportedly failed to establish good relations with party and state officials.
In sum, we believe that the boycott of H&M was first and foremost part of China’s response to the western sanctions on Xinjiang officials. By imposing a significant cost on one of its critics, China demonstrated the breadth of potential consequences that could befall companies that oppose its political positions. It is logical that H&M may have appeared one of the most suitable targets for sending this signal. Not only is it an influential member of the BCI and one of the western companies that has been most vocal on issues related to Xinjiang, it is also a company whose home nation has frequently expressed concern about human rights in China and recently restricted the access of Chinese companies to the 5G market. H&M may also have stood out as an attractive target because it was replaceable – it did not enjoy support among Chinese state agencies and did not have a unique selling point in the Chinese market.
The growing number of consumer boycotts poses challenges for both foreign companies and governments with a presence in China. Four key points are worthy of note.
1. Foreign companies face growing pressure
We have offered several explanations for the rise in consumer boycotts of foreign companies in China, notably the rise of alternative domestic products, the use of state propaganda, growing online nationalism and the heightened tension between the US and China. There is little reason to believe that any of these trends will abate anytime soon. On the contrary, we find it likely that foreign companies will continue to face pressure in at least two ways.
First, the emergence of high-quality Chinese brands are limiting foreign companies’ room for manoeuvre as their customers will increasingly have the option of purchasing equivalent domestic alternatives. The pressure on consumers to do so is amplified by movements such as the guochao that favour patriotic consumption. As a result, foreign companies that do not adapt to Chinese political and cultural conceptions could increasingly fall out of favour with segments of the consumer base, and without loyal consumers, a boycott might be close at hand in the event of a misstep.
Second, foreign firms may increasingly find themselves caught in a battle of wills between Chinese and western markets. As we have demonstrated, many foreign companies have historically caved into Chinese pressure, usually by issuing apologies for statements made on Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, when the boycotts linked to Xinjiang emerged in 2021, western companies were hesitant and generally less willing to toe the Chinese line, most likely due to the risk of sparking a backlash in their western consumer base.
The unwillingness of companies to apologise over remarks made regarding Xinjiang might reflect a broader trend of growing North American and European interest in China’s human rights record and other issues that could put the Chinese state on the defensive. Over time, such trends could generate more situations where the opinions of Chinese and western consumers are fundamentally opposed on current issues, and where companies’ efforts to satisfy consumers in one market risk sparking a backlash in the other. This will confront businesses with difficult questions about which markets they value the most. It also suggests that in addition to understanding China’s red lines, foreign companies must become aware of changing attitudes to China on their home turf.
2. The Chinese state leads by example
Organisations affiliated with the Chinese state have on several occasions supported, and sometimes initiated, boycotts of specific companies. Nationalist online users have subsequently targeted other companies over the same and similar issues, most commonly related to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Xinjiang. For instance, state-run media supported a campaign in 2019 against luxury brands, including Coach, Versace and Givenchy, for failing to respect China’s territorial integrity. The campaign sparked an initiative by consumers to actively seek out other companies that had suggested that Taiwan and Hong Kong were separate from China.
The same dynamic occurred in 2021 when the state-initiated boycott of H&M sparked movements against other companies that had also expressed concern over the human rights situation in Xinjiang. To understand where the next boycott might emerge, therefore, it is crucial to monitor statements from state-affiliated entities for any indications of criticism against companies or organisations.
3. Apologising entails risk
While a public apology might seem to be the obvious solution for a foreign company subjected to a boycott in China, there are two things to keep in mind in such a situation. First, it seems increasingly to be the case that any attention is bad attention for foreign businesses in nationalist online spheres in China. To some degree, the way that Chinese consumers react to company apologies appears arbitrary, and there is no guarantee that an apology will not result in additional negative publicity. Regardless of whether an apology is issued, companies should avoid switching positions as this is typically met with particularly severe criticism. While we recognise that it is not always easy for companies to remain silent when consumers demand an apology, the preferred course of action might be to try to avoid the public eye completely.
Second, most boycotts concern China’s so-called core interests, especially those related to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. This essentially means that the red lines that trigger boycotts are defined by the Chinese state, which persistently emphasises that any criticism of its core interests are “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”. When deciding whether to apologise, companies should keep in mind that the Chinese state intentionally confounds the will of the people with that of the state, and that in some cases apologising to the Chinese people can mean apologising to the Chinese state. This, in turn, can be perceived by some audiences as acquiescing to or endorsing the Chinese government’s policy on various issues.
4. Online reactions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of consumers
Boycotts in China are primarily developed and implemented online, where criticism of targeted companies is often severe. However, it is worth keeping in mind that these are the opinions of what appears to be a particularly nationalistic subset of the population. As one Weibo user wrote, “A country where you can’t protest in the streets has raised a den of internet vigilantes… They’re always making trouble, making noise”.
Furthermore, we do not know the extent to which these outbursts of nationalism influence consumer behaviour. While it is likely that businesses incur reputational costs, it is far from certain that the people reached by boycott messages stop buying the products sold by the company in question. Outsiders who only observe the online reaction of a boycott may thus overestimate its size and the impact on a company’s operations in China. Such exaggerations may in turn deter other companies from expressing critical views of China in the future, effectively serving the interest of the Chinese state.
 2008 was chosen as a starting point because of the boycotts of French companies in conjunction with the Olympic Games that year. The scale and visibility of these boycotts were significantly higher than similar movements in previous years. See Schär, T. (2020) “The Political Role of Chinese Consumer Boycotts for Beijing”, Mapping China Journal, 4.
 This definition is mainly concerned with elements of what Friedman would call an “action-requested boycott” or a “media-oriented boycott” (Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media, Routledge, 1999, p. 10). A stricter definition of a consumer boycott might have included aspects of what Friedman calls “action-taken boycotts” or “marketplace-oriented boycotts”, which are more concerned with the impact on consumer behaviour. Under a stricter definition, calls for a boycott might not qualify as a boycott unless there was evidence that people had stopped buying the company’s products. Instead of systematically studying such effects on sales, this study is based on the assumption that a dissemination of calls for a boycott is likely to have some influence on consumer behaviour, or at least have reputational costs for the company that could impact consumer behaviour in the long term.
 In a few cases, we have relied on the party-owned tabloid Global Times, as specified in the appendix.
 We primarily used the search engines Google and Baidu. We also used Chinese and Swedish databases such as CNKI, LIBRIS and EDS. The main keywords in English and Chinese were: China, boycott, backlash, coercion, consumerism, apology, reaction, H&M, netizens, 杯葛, 外国, 公司, 抵制 ,名单, 经济,消费者,网友, 社交媒体,反应, 回应,惩罚.
 We use the term “state” throughout the text as a shorthand for the Chinese system of government with the organisations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at its centre.
 As noted above, it is possible that some boycotts did not draw media attention. This may be particularly true in the earlier years of the defined time frame, as the China coverage of English-speaking media was much less extensive ten years ago than it is today. This may in turn have skewed our data slightly towards an overestimation of the share of boycotts occurring in recent years.
 As mentioned above, we do not claim to have identified all the boycotts in the defined period. It is possible that our review may have failed to identify boycotts reported only in languages other than English and Chinese, which may have skewed our data slightly towards an overestimation of the share of boycotts targeting English-speaking countries such as the US.
 Wang, J. (2006), “The Politics of Goods: A Case Study of Consumer Nationalism and Media Discourse in Contemporary China”, Asian Journal of Communication, 16(2), p. 197.
 The Chinese Basketball Association’s parent organisation is the General Administration of Sport, which is the government agency responsible for sports in China and is subordinate to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.
 Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.“Chinese company Anta to quit BCI, will continue to use cotton from Xinjiang”, 24.03.21, https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/chinese-company-anta-to-quit-bci-will-continue-to-use-cotton-from-xinjiang/.
[Western enterprises “touching porcelain” over Xinjiang cotton caused dissatisfaction]. H&M’s statement on “stop using Xinjiang cotton” recently caused dissatisfaction among Chinese netizens. In fact, there are many foreign companies that have made remarks about “cutting” Xinjiang cotton in the past two years. Among them are BCI members Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance and more. Netizens have one after another expressed #The Chinese market does not welcome malicious slanderers#! Current investigation found that #Nike official statement cannot be opened#. #Nike#] “Touching porcelain” (pèngcí, 碰瓷) is a concept used to refer to manufactured drama.
 Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “China: 83 major brands implicated in report on forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang assigned to factories across provinces; Includes company responses”, 01.03.21,
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