When the Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M said in September that it was ending its relationship with a Chinese supplier accused of using forced labor, a few Chinese social media accounts dedicated to the textile industry took note. But by and large, the moment passed without fanfare.
Half a year later, Beijing’s online outrage machine sprang into action. This time, its wrath was unsparing.
The Communist Party’s youth wing denounced H&M on social media and posted an archival photo of slaves on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Official news outlets piled on with their own indignant memes and hashtags. Patriotic web users carried the message across far and varied corners of the Chinese internet.
Within hours, a tsunami of nationalist fury was crashing down upon H&M, Nike, Uniqlo and other international clothing brands, becoming the latest eruption over China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang, a major cotton producer.
The crisis the apparel brands now face is familiar to many foreign businesses in China. The Communist Party for years has used the country’s giant consumer market to force international companies to march in step with its political sensibilities, or at least not to contest them openly.
But the latest episode has illustrated the Chinese government’s growing skill at whipping up storms of patriotic anger to punish companies that violate this pact.
In H&M’s case, the timing of the furor seemed dictated not by anything the retailer did, but by sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last week by the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada in connection to Xinjiang. China has placed hundreds of thousands of the region’s Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in indoctrination camps and used harsh methods to push them into jobs with factories and other employers.
“The hate-fest part is not sophisticated; it’s the same logic they’ve followed going back decades,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. But “their ability to control it is getting better,” he said.
“They know how to light up those ultra-pro-government, nationalist users,” Mr. Xiao continued. “They’re getting very good at it. They know exactly what to do.”
On Monday, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, rejected the notion that Beijing had led the boycott campaign against H&M and the other brands.
“These foreign companies refuse to use Xinjiang cotton purely on the basis of lies,” Mr. Zhao said at a news briefing. “Of course this will trigger the Chinese people’s dislike and anger. Does the government even need to incite and guide this?”
After the Communist Youth League ignited the outrage on Wednesday, other government-backed groups and state news outlets fanned the flames.
They posted memes proposing new meanings behind the letters H and M: mian hua (cotton), huang miu (ridiculous), mo hei (smears). The official Xinhua news agency posted an illustration depicting the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that had expressed concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang, as a blindfolded puppet controlled by two hands that were patterned like an American flag.
The buzz quickly drew notice at Beijing’s highest levels. On Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman held up a photo of slaves in American cotton fields during a news briefing.
The messages were amplified by people with large followings but largely nonpolitical social media presences.
Squirrel Video, a Weibo account dedicated to silly videos, shared the Communist Youth League’s original post on H&M with its 10 million followers. A gadget blogger in Chengdu with 1.4 million followers shared a clip showing a worker removing an H&M sign from a mall. A user in Beijing who posts about television stars highlighted entertainers who had ended their contracts with Adidas and other targeted brands.
“Today’s China is not one that just anyone can bully!” he wrote to his nearly seven million followers. “We do not ask for trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble either.”
A fashion influencer named Wei Ya held a live video event on Friday hawking products made with Xinjiang cotton. In her Weibo post announcing the event, she made sure to tag the Communist Youth League.
By Monday, news sites were circulating a rap video that combined the cotton issue with some popular recent lines of attack on Western powers: “How can a country where 500,000 have died of Covid-19 claim the high ground?”
One Weibo user posted a lushly animated video that he said he had worked through the night to make. It shows white-hooded men pointing guns at Black cotton pickers and ends with a lynching.
“These are your foolish acts; we would never,” a caption reads.
Less than two hours after the user shared the video, it was reposted by Global Times, a party-controlled newspaper known for its nationalist tone.
Many web users who speak up during such campaigns are motivated by genuine patriotism, even if China’s government does pay some people to post party-line comments. Others, such as the traffic-hungry blog accounts derided in China as “marketing accounts,” are probably more pragmatic. They just want the clicks.
In these moments of mass fervor, it can be hard to say where official propaganda ends and opportunistic profit seeking begins.
“I think the boundary between the two is increasingly blurred,” said Chenchen Zhang, an assistant professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast who studies Chinese internet discourse.
“Nationalistic topics sell; they bring in a lot of traffic,” Professor Zhang said. “Official accounts and marketing accounts, they come together and all take part in this ‘market nationalism.’”
Chinese officials are being careful not to let the anger get out of hand. According to tests conducted 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 in Global Times urged readers to “resolutely criticize those like H&M that make deliberate provocations, but at the same time, stay rational and beware of pretend patriots joining the crowd to stir up hatred.”
The Communist Youth League has been at the forefront of optimizing party messages for viral engagement. Its influence is growing as more voices in society look for ways to show loyalty to Beijing, said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“They have more and more fans,” Professor Fang said. “And whether it’s other government departments, marketing accounts or these nationalist influencers, they all are paying attention to their positions more closely and are immediately following along.”
The H&M uproar has had the presumably unintended effect of causing more Chinese internet users to discuss the situation in Xinjiang. For many years, people generally avoided the subject, knowing that comments that dwelled on the harsh aspects of China’s rule there could get them in trouble. To avoid detection by censors, many web users referred to the region not by its Chinese name, but by using the Roman letters “xj.”
But in recent days, some have discovered firsthand why it still pays to be cautious when talking about Xinjiang.
One 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 had been locked up, and that the foreign news reports about mass internments were all true.
Within hours, the blogger apologized for the “bad impact” her post had made.
“Don’t just support Xinjiang cotton, support Xinjiang people too!” another Weibo user wrote. “Support Xinjiang people walking the streets and not having their phone and ID checked.”
The post later vanished. Its author declined to comment, citing concerns for his safety. Weibo did not respond to a request for comment.
Lin Qiqing contributed research.