The H&M incident is an excellent example in dissecting China’s internal and foreign affairs. Here I will interpret the performance of Chinese social manipulation in the H&M incident and its fatal flaws.
Let me talk about what the H&M incident is.
On March 24, the Communist Youth League, an affiliate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), took the lead in its official Weibo account to criticize H&M’s statement on suspending Xinjiang cotton last year, saying: “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton while trying to make money in China? Wishful thinking!”
This remark drew one-sided support from more than 400,000 Chinese netizens with comments advocating boycotting H&M, such as “Get out” and “Don’t expect to get fed by the Chinese and smash the Chinese wok at the same time.” Many state media, such as CCTV and People’s Daily also joined the fight.
The incident escalated quickly. Chinese e-commerce platform JD.com removed H&M’s products and online stores, followed by other platforms such as Taobao and Tmall.
The boycott quickly spread to other brands. On March 25, state media published a roll call article of other brands that issued similar due diligence statements as H&M, including Nike, UNIQLO, Adidas, GAP, FILA, New Balance, ZARA, and Under Armour.
According to incomplete data from reporters, as of March 25 at least 50 stars (including from Hong Kong and Taiwan) had terminated their contracts with these brands.
Before the H&M incident, there were multiple boycotts of international brands incited by the CCP. For example, the boycott of the French retailer Carrefour in 2008 (the direct cause was the Tibet issue and the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay boycott in France); the 2010 and 2012 boycott of Japanese goods (the direct cause was the Diaoyu Islands or Senkaku Islands as Japan calls them); the 2016 boycott of KFC (the direct cause was the South China Sea arbitration); the 2017 boycott of South Korean goods (the direct cause was the U.S. defense system THAAD’s entry into South Korea), etc.
However, none of the boycotts proved to be a viable solution.
For example, according to online shopping statistics released by the South Korean authorities, in the first quarter of 2017 the amount of Chinese people buying Korean goods online reached 621.8 billion won ($550 million) (United States and Japan, the second and the third largest, were only 45.8 billion won and 33.9 billion won, respectively), a year-on-year increase of 59.2 percent, despite the anti-Korean sentiment over the THAAD incited by the CCP.
Of course, there were wise and conscientious voices that opposed the boycotts. There were posts proposing to boycott “idiots.” Even the regime’s mouthpiece would publish articles arguing that the boycott is a “fake patriotic proposition,” and stating that it is very unrealistic to boycott products from any country or region. They would say that it is not even clear what the boycott is for, that it has nothing to do with patriotism, and could end up hurting compatriots. Relating boycotts to patriotism is even more an act of ignorance.
The Refinement of CCP Manipulation in the H&M Incident
However, in the H&M incident the CCP’s incitement skills and process control were quite different from those of the past. Looking at the incident, the CCP’s exquisite manipulation skills are reflected in at least the following three aspects.
Firstly, the Communist Youth League (CYL) took the lead.
In July 2015, at a “Central Party’s Mass Organizational Meetings” held for the first time in the history of the CCP, Xi Jinping severely criticized the CYL as “paralyzed from the neck down.” In April 2016, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection publicly criticized the CYL for being too “bureaucratic, procedural minded, aristocratic, and entertainment-oriented.” In August of the same year, the CYL Central Reform Plan was issued to implement both personnel and budget cuts. After several years of reforms, the CYL has become an important member of the CCP’s wolf warriors.
By the way, the so-called “Mass Organizations” refers to the CYL, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the All-China Women’s Association, All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, China Association for Science and Technology, the Federation of Overseas Chinese, the Association of Science and Technology, and the Red Cross Society of Mainland of China, etc.
Secondly, a network was exploited using powerful and high-pressure economic means.
It started with a precise target, H&M, and gradually expanded to other brands. In addition, e-commerce has become an important channel for major brands to sell. The CCP went straight to an e-commerce platform, a tactic with great power and deterrence.
Third, a social sensation effect was created.
The CCP not only incited the public to punish brands, but also launched an overwhelming offensive on public opinion to force celebrities who endorsed various brands to make high-profile stances by cutting ties with the brands. The importance of social attention for big brands and the popularity of celebrities have become powerful means for the CCP to arouse and induce public opinion. Compared with 2008, the CCP’s tactics have gone to a higher level.
It should be pointed out here that celebrities haven’t only just become the CCP’s tools. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily previously reported that the China Film Administration issued a notice in April 2020 requiring major platforms, film, and TV to avoid artists from Hong Kong and Taiwan who have not expressed their political stance. Performing artists must sign a 10-year guarantee of political correctness. Artists are required to compensate for loss in case of breach of contract. It can be speculated from the H&M incident that the CCP’s political exploitation of stars will become the norm.
A Fatal Blow to the CCP’s Manipulation
The CCP started out as a movement. It is proficient in social manipulation. The countless various social movements were only to achieve its political goals and continue its rule. However, the changes and complexity of the international arena is too immense to control.
Take the H&M incident as an example. The boycott will hurt Chinese dealers and workers, not to mention the many brands involved. When Nike was targeted, a Chinese headline reminded the public, “How Can the Chinese Super League and Team China Still Wear Nike?” Many Chinese Internet users took the hint and pointed their fingers at the Chinese Football Association and demanded to decouple Nike, the sponsor of China’s national football team and Super League. However, the 10-year contract between Nike and the Chinese Super League has yet to expire, and the sponsorship amount is as much as 3 billion yuan ($458 million). Would the Chinese Football Association dare to change it?
In addition, China and the international community are connected. Many brands boycott Xinjiang cotton, which represents the public opinion of the international community. If they are collaborating with the CCP, they may be boycotted by the international community. For example, Japanese fashion retailer Muji is still continuing to sell products made from Xinjiang cotton, and a new series of clothing, “Xinjiang Cotton,” has appeared in the new products section of its official website in China. International investors have surely expressed their dissatisfaction with it. On March 26, Muji’s stock price plummeted, and its market value lost 22.9 billion yen ($210 million). Therefore, the linkage between China and the international community restricts the CCP’s manipulation.
Finally, the CCP is terrified of public opinion. Although it manipulates people to engage in movements, it also tries to strictly control it before it gets completely out of hand. For example, in the 2016 boycott of KFC, three men were administratively detained for organizing netizens to illegally block KFC stores. This time, a video showed that a woman was taken away by the police for holding a boycott of H&M and protesting alone to an H&M branch. This caused a heated discussion on Twitter: “The Boxer is too big to be controlled!” “Beaten with a socialist iron fist.”
From the H&M incident, we can see the progress and refinement of the CCP’s manipulation. However, due to the inherent fatal flaws of the CCP’s manipulation, the final outcome of the H&M incident has still ended in a farce.
Wang He has master’s degrees in law and history, with a focus on the international communist movement. He was a university lecturer and an executive of a large private company in China. He was imprisoned in China twice for his beliefs. Wang lives in North America now and has published commentaries on China’s current affairs and politics since 2017.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.