Collab: Uncovering the Chinese information operations behind the H&M boycott over Xinjiang cotton
Author: Lee Chafaud
Researcher: Harpre Ke
In March 2021, a campaign to boycott H&M took off suddenly in China. Doublethink Lab traced this to a state-affiliated account amplifying a post from a local influencer by tagging hashtags related to “Xinjiang Cotton”, which was then picked up by other state-media accounts and web users and further escalated, leading to H&M stores shutting down across China.
Doublethink Lab was asked by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) to help investigate. The WSJ article, ‘Chinese Propaganda Officials Celebrate Social-Media Attacks on H&M in Countering Forced-Labor Allegations’, was published on March 31st, 2021.
What are Doublethink Lab’s findings?
Researchers at Doublethink Lab locked our investigation to March 23rd to the 25th, the time period when H&M and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)’s statements on Xinjiang cotton saw renewed interest on Chinese social media platforms (Figure. 1). We discovered that interest in the topic gained steam following a post by a party-state media account on Weibo that directed anger at H&M and BCI for its decision to not source Xinjiang cotton in its supply chain.
Following one party-state media account that pushed the topic, a number of Weibo influencers and media start-ups known for their nationalistic bent soon followed with their own stories on the topic. Simultaneously, three hashtags that touched on the Xinjiang cotton issue also began to trend.
Who initiated the campaign?
The campaign gained momentum because of a post shared by the Weibo account of the Central Communist Youth League (共青团中央), a party-state affiliated media account.
However, the CYL did not publish the original post. The original post was published by a Weibo account called “Yiping Hai’an” (一玶海岸) on March 23rd, which featured screenshots of an official statement from H&M in English (Figure. 2). The statement reads that the company does not source its cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and that they would continue to monitor reports from the Better Cotton Initiative on forced labor practices in the region.
Yiping Hai’an added in his post, that “as a long-time H&M customer, I’ve taken the initiative to say good riddance to them. Bye bye!” He also pointed out that China was H&M’s “fourth-largest market.”
The following day, less than 11 hours later, the CYL Weibo account published a post using the screenshots from Yiping Hai’an’s post, and wrote (Figure. 3): “Spreading rumours and boycotting Xinjiang cotton while looking to make money in China? What wishful thinking! #HM-is-staging-a-car-crash-with-Xinjiang-cotton# (#HM碰瓷新疆棉花#)” (Figure. 4)
In addition to screenshots of the H&M statement on Xinjiang cotton, the CYL Weibo post also included screenshots of Better Cotton Initiative’s statement on Xinjiang cotton in simplified Chinese. The CYL Weibo account was the first to amplify a user post on the Xinjiang cotton issue.
Ostensibly, the Communist Youth League of China is the youth wing of the Chinese Communist Party, and reports directly to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s consultative political body. In practice, the CYL is a powerful clique within the party, with current premier Li Keqiang and former chairman Hu Jintao hailing from the clique.
The CYL has an active presence on Chinese social media like Weibo and WeChat, and garners a large following on both platforms.
Shortly after the CYL post, two more Xinjiang cotton related hashtag campaigns also began to trend on Weibo, “#I-support-Xinjiang-cotton#” (#我支持新疆棉花#) (Figure. 5) and “#What-kind-of-organization-is-BCI?#” (#BCI是什麽组织#) (Figure. 6).
Who is Yiping Hai’an?
Yiping Hai’an is an influencer account on Weibo. Accounts like Yiping Hai’an are often known as “self-media’’ in China’s social media ecosystem. Self-media accounts are independently operated social media accounts that produce a mix of news and commentary. They optimize their content for social media, and often write salacious headlines or share memes to catch the user’s eye. When self-media accounts publish political content, they hew closely to the party line to avoid censorship and takedowns.
Why are party-state media pushing the Xinjiang cotton issue now?
It is unclear why party-state media decided to push the Xinjiang cotton issue at this time, although it could be linked to the sanctions the European Union (EU) imposed on Chinese officials. On March 22nd, the EU approved sanctions against four high-ranking officials in China for the human rights violations in Xinjiang — the first time the EU has done so in more than 30 years.
H&M’s statement on not using cotton from Xinjiang was published on its official website in late January 2021, while the statement from the Better Cotton Initiative dates back to October 2020. The CYL Weibo account did not retaliate against these statements when they were initially published, and only turned it into an issue in late March.
Nonetheless, after the CYL decided to frame the topic with an official party lens, it began to trend again. We were also able to verify that Yiping Hai’an is the originator of the screenshots when he later shared CYL’s post and said that it was “a load off my mind to see the CYL take over the topic.” (Figure. 7)
Doublethink Lab cannot determine if there was premeditated coordination between the Yiping Hai’an and CYL Weibo accounts on this topic.
According to the chairman of Doublethink Lab, Dr. Puma Shen, “although the attack on H&M was supported through official coordination, it was low-level and short-term. In comparison to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) propaganda blitz, the Xinjiang Cotton topic is acting only as a ‘warning’ to the West.”
In fact, the Xinjiang Cotton story is different from past CCP propaganda blitzes, Dr. Puma Shen said, pointing out that, during the US deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea, party-state media published 60 articles per day for more than a hundred days to push China’s opinion on the deployment of THAAD. Nonetheless, “the popularity of the Xinjiang cotton topic among the public likely exceeded China’s expectations,” Dr. Puma Shen added.