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Why are people in China burning their Nikes?

Allegations of human rights violations have turned into a social media firestorm

If you’ve been following the news this week, you may have noticed videos popping up on the internet of people in China burning their Nikes. This isn’t some weird new internet trend, this is an attempt by Chinese citizens to stand up against and boycott the brand, along with Adidas and several other apparel companies over accusations of the alleged use of forced labour in Xinjiang, the country’s main cotton-producing region.

Video from a Weibo user burning their Nikes

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To understand what’s really going on here, we have to turn back the clock a bit. Last September, Swedish clothing retailer H&M released a statement expressing its concern over allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang, where approximately 20 per cent of the world’s cotton is produced. Other brands like Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Puma also made statements against cotton from the region. In a lengthy statement made nearly a year ago, Nike said that they prohibit “any type of prison, forced, bonded or indentured labor”.

“Nike is committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing and we uphold international labor standards. We are concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Nike does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”

So why are statements made several months ago creating a scandal now? According to CNN, human rights groups have been accusing Beijing of detaining minority groups in the area and using them as forced labour, claiming it’s part of global retail supply chains. Recently, the U.S. and other Western countries (including Canada) have placed sanctions on China over Xinjiang, which has resulted in significant pushback from the Chinese government. Several news outlets in the country have called the allegations lies, and Chinese Communist Youth League released its own statement, saying “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while trying to make a profit in China? Wishful thinking!”

Popular Chinese e-commerce platforms have now pulled products from H&M, Nike, Adidas and several other brands from their websites, and several of the country’s celebrities are dropping their Nike and Adidas endorsements. As outrage on social media has continued to spread, several users of the popular Chinese social media app, Weibo, have posted videos of them burning their Nike shoes and other apparel, and many users have stated that they will stop buying from Nike.

Nike and Adidas are both part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the group that promotes sustainable cotton production, which suspended its approval of Xinjiang cotton in October. According to Reuters, users have also attacked the organization for its stance.

“If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China,” one internet user wrote.

The human rights allegations in question are the same reason why some parties are calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, set to take place in Beijing next year.

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