The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s propaganda machine kicks into high gear over Xinjiang criticism

Pedestrians pass an H&M store in Beijing on March 29. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

SEOUL — Boycotts. Threats of lawsuits. Travel bans for scholars' families.

Beijing is stepping up its pressure campaign on Western multinationals and academics who raised concern about ethnic oppression in China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

Xinjiang officials warned international companies in a news conference on Monday to be careful of blowback, after state media fanned calls to boycott H&M, Nike and other brands that have shied away from Xinjiang cotton because of elevated risk of forced labor in the region.

“When you swing the big stick of sanctions at Xinjiang companies, you will also hit yourself,” said Xu Guixiang, a spokesman for the Xinjiang region’s government. “We hope that more companies like H&M will keep their eyes open and distinguish right from wrong.”

China attacks foreign clothing, shoe brands over Xinjiang

Beijing has been seeking to control the domestic narrative over Xinjiang, flooding social media platforms for days with official media posts defending the work conditions there, calls to boycott Western fashion brands and cartoons depicting pre-Civil War slavery in the U.S. South.

China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has posted primarily about Xinjiang in recent days, with a dozen tweets defending its cotton industry and criticizing U.S. policies on Muslims since Sunday.

The intense response reflects the stakes at hand. Protracted economic sanctions on Xinjiang — the heart of China’s cotton production — could permanently reroute some supply chains out of China. The Xinjiang crackdown, which the U.S. State Department has declared “genocide,” also threatens to become a defining part of President Xi Jinping’s historical legacy.

Deborah Mayersen, an Australian expert in genocide prevention, said Beijing’s threats to Western companies were directed at a domestic audience as much as the foreign one, with senior officials seeking to project legitimacy at home in the face of sanctions.

“China is trying to win a propaganda war at home,” she said.

China’s Xinjiang policies prompted the European Union to impose on March 22 its first sanctions on China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The E.U. was joined by the United States, Britain and Canada, in a coordinated approach.

Beijing has struck back steadily since then, first with sanctions on officials in the E.U. and Britain. Over the weekend, it added several U.S. and Canadian officials: Gayle Manchin, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; the commission’s vice chair, Tony Perkins; Canadian Parliament member Michael Chong; and an international human rights subcommittee of Canada’s House of Commons.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Beijing’s reaction on Saturday: “Beijing’s attempts to silence criticism of serious human rights abuse in Xinjiang only contributes to growing international scrutiny.”

China also extended its sanctions to academic scholars, raising concerns that the campaign would have a chilling effect on research. The Mercator Institute for China Studies, which is the largest European think tank focused on China, and Newcastle University anthropologist Joanne Smith Finley were targeted by Beijing last week.

By Sunday, more than 400 scholars had signed a letter of support for Finley.

“The Chinese Communist Party has long used covert attempts to silence critics outside its territory, but these overt new measures against academics are a serious escalation,” said the letter they signed, published in the British newspaper the Times.

Chinese state media have also reported that unspecified Xinjiang companies were planning to sue Adrian Zenz, a prominent U.S.-based Xinjiang researcher.

Human rights activists issued calls over the weekend for fashion brands to resist caving in to China’s threats of boycott. Human Rights Watch said Inditex, the parent company of Zara; PVH, parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein; and VF, parent company of the North Face and JanSport, have all since removed statements on Xinjiang.

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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