Chinese Censors Blur Western Brands Over Xinjiang Cotton Boycott

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People walk past an H&M store in Beijing on April 5, 2021. A Xinjiang cotton boycott has led China’s communist state to blur the brands involved on television.

Several major Western fashion brands recently announced a boycott on Chinese cotton from Xinjiang over concerns about the use of forced labour in the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the region. The brands faced major backlash by Chinese citizens who launched boycotts of their own. 

Chinese state-run media has since escalated their response by censoring television shows, where names and emblems of the boycotted brands are being blurred by production staff.

According to BBC, the cotton controversy began after the U.S. and some of its allies increased pressure on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), urging the regime to ease up on the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.  Now, brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Puma, who are all members of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)—a non-profit group promoting sustainable cotton production—are caught up in the struggle to hold the CCP to adequate labor and human rights standards.

Counterfeit Nike logo and store in Kunming City, China from 2005.
Counterfeit Nike logo and store in Kunming City, China from 2005. (Image: Jocelyn Saurini via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

According to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the BCI released a statement in March 2020 stating they were suspending their assurance activities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Zone over concerns about labor abuse in the region.

Chinese celebrities and other citizens reacted on social media by denouncing the brands while calling for a boycott of their own, encouraging western companies to stay out of China’s internal affairs. 

Some of the shows that were censored are Sisters Who Make Waves and Chuang 2021, but the hardest to censor was a reality show called Youth With You, which airs on streaming video format iQiyi. What made the redactions so challenging was that the show featured a large number of contestants wearing targeted brand names. The production company for Youth With You released a notice on March 25 explaining an upcoming episode would be delayed, but did not explain the reason. When the episode was finally released, more than 50 people on the show had brand names and emblems on the clothes they were wearing blurred out.

Censoring TV programs through the use of blur filters in China is not new. The practice has been done before to hide hip-hop culture references, tattoos and cleavage. In 2019, even earrings worn on males were censored, because Communist Party censors said it made the men look effeminate.

Beijing continues to claim the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is an effort to lift the ethnic minority out of poverty and advance the ethnic minority through re-education, while many people around the world perceive the situation as abhorrent human rights abuses, if not outright genocide. The U.S. and several allies have recently sanctioned Party members involved in the policy of re-education and forced labour that Uyghur’s are subjected to, formally calling the campaign genocide.

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  • David Wagner is a University of Manitoba graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Religion in Sociology. He is interested in the psychology of religious and ideological belief and the relationship between religions and the state in totalitarian countries.