“The United States does not have the qualification to speak to China.”
As far as slogans go, it’s not necessarily the catchiest. But the phrase, along with several others uttered by top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi during heated talks with the US earlier this month, has become an unlikely fashion hit in China, appearing on T-shirts, phone cases and other items.
The arrival of the T-shirts on Chinese e-commerce sites – just hours after Yang traded barbs with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska – captures the changing mood in Beijing, as policy makers signal a new willingness to push back against criticism of alleged human rights abuses, particularly those centered on Xinjiang.
In recent days, China has leveled reciprocal sanctions against the United Kingdom and the European Union, targeting lawmakers and academics, which it accused of “maliciously spreading lies and disinformation” regarding Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats and state media have attacked Western governments online, rallying against what they term “hypocritical double standards,” while drawing attention to the West’s own legacy of historical injustice.
And all this has come as the government appears to be stoking a new wave of online nationalism.
Major European clothing label H&M was pulled from several e-commerce stores in China on Thursday after the ruling Communist Party’s youth organization highlighted a months-old company statement speaking out against allegations of forced labor connected to Xinjiang’s cotton industry.
Other businesses, including Nike, Adidas and Burberry, were soon dragged into the social media outcry, amid calls for a nationwide boycott. Posts containing an “I support Xinjiang cotton” hashtag on China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo, have been read almost 5 billion times.
In an editorial Friday, the editor of state-run tabloid Global Times, Hu Xijin, said the “battlefield” over Xinjiang could become the “frontline” in the ideological conflict between the US and China.
With the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party just months away, an apparent line has been drawn for those wishing to negotiate or do business with Beijing – making clear that Western values are not necessarily compatible with access to the China market.
When US President Joe Biden took office in January, the Chinese government appeared to be publicly angling for a reset in relations.
Under former US leader Donald Trump, tensions between Beijing and Washington rapidly escalated, with both sides imposing a series of retaliatory tariffs, sanctions and visa restrictions.
At the same time, the Chinese government faced allegations of serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where Washington alleges up to 2 million people from Muslim minorities have been detained in a network of camps across the region. China denies the allegations, insisting the camps are voluntary “vocational training centers” designed to stamp out religious extremism and terrorism.
The reset Beijing hoped for never came. Shortly before the Alaska meeting, the US announced new sanctions against officials in Hong Kong over the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil liberties in the global financial hub. At the meeting in Alaska on Thursday, US and Chinese officials feuded in front of the media.
On Monday, the US, Canada, UK and EU all announced targeted sanctions against Chinese officials in Xinjiang. In a joint statement, the grouping decried China’s alleged “use of forced labor, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilizations, and the concerted destruction of Uyghur heritage.”
In the wake of the Alaska meeting and new sanctions, Chinese officials and state media have escalated their attempts to deflect criticism by highlighting alleged human rights abuses in Western countries.
On Tuesday, Global Times published a list of “European countries’ misdeeds on human rights,” which included a reference to the continent’s ongoing migrant crisis, as well as the Holocaust, in which more than 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazi Germany regime in concentration camps across Europe.
At a news conference on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying claimed the US was a far worse violator of human rights than China. “We hope that the US side and its Western allies will abandon hypocrisy, arrogance and double standards, face up to their own human rights issues, and take concrete actions to improve and protect human rights,” she said.
And in a post to its official Twitter account Friday, state-run news agency Xinhua compared allegations of forced labor in cotton production in Xinjiang to the former use of slavery in the US.
With political tensions again running high, business is among the few remaining bridges between the two sides. On Thursday, that too began to buckle under political pressure.
A post from the Communist Youth League, the Party’s youth wing, highlighted a statement by Swedish clothing giant H&M from September where the company said it was “deeply concerned” over reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, specifically around allegations of forced labor in the production of cotton.
H&M had its products pulled from e-commerce stores, and Chinese celebrities quickly dropped out of sponsorship agreements with the company under pressure from those online.
Social media users helped to track down other Western brands that had previously voiced concerns about alleged human rights issues in Xinjiang, with the backlash spreading to include Nike, Adidas and Uniqlo.
China is less than a year away from hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, and brands and participants will likely be looking on with trepidation at the apparent dilemma they now face: speak out against alleged human rights abuses and face a boycott in China. Stay silent, and risk blowback at home.
On Thursday, Japanese chain Muji appeared to change the labeling on its online store in China to highlight the cotton came from Xinjiang.
Global Times editor Hu said it was right for Chinese internet users to express their patriotism. “Let us mobilize various forces, give full play to their specific strengths and fight a people’s war to safeguard our sovereignty and dignity creatively,” he said in his editorial Friday.
The backlash is reminiscent of previous bursts of nationalistic fervor that have swept the country. In 2012, there were large – and at times violent – protests in China targeting Japanese stores and cars, amid a dispute between the two countries over the ownership of isolated islands.
In 2017, 23 stores from South Korean supermarket chain Lotte were closed in China after protests over the installation of a US-made THAAD missile defense system.
In the past, however, diplomats and officials have usually presented a calm front in a bid to quell the patriotic anger and prevent major diplomatic and economic damage. This time around, the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy makes such a possibility seem less likely.
“The Chinese people wouldn’t allow foreigners to reap benefits in China on the one hand, and smear China on the other … we reject any malicious attack on China and even attempts to undermine China’s interests on the basis of rumors and lies,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday, referring to the H&M boycott.
The campaign online was “not nationalism” added Hua, rather it was “simply patriotism.”