Recent research has highlighted that Chinese boycotts against international brands have intensified in recent years. Increasingly, the frequency of such events matches that when Beijing is up to political gain.

A report released on July 11 by Swedish National China Center (SNCC) found that there have been about 90 boycotts against international businesses between 2008 and 2021. 

The most common targets were businesses from North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia with their boycotts. The list’s top three countries are the U.S. with 27 boycott instances, Japan (11 cases), France (11 cases), then Germany (8 cases), and South Korea (6 cases).

The years of mainlanders becoming sensitive to certain brands coincided with when Beijing had political disputes with a foreign government, under scrutiny for human rights abuses, and territorial claims with other countries.

According to a chart compiled by the think tank, 2019 saw a peak in boycotts related to Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and territorial contests with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. At the time, numerous fashion companies, including Coach, Versace, and Gap, experienced consumer outrage after producing T-shirts that left Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Macau out of their depictions of China.

In March 2021, H&M was bombarded with bullets on Chinese social media. The official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League Central Committee, the official body of the Communist Party of China, scolded: “While spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, you want to make money in China at the same time? Wishful thinking!”

The wrath came after the Swedish clothing brand released a statement acknowledging the human rights allegations in Xinjiang and reassured that it had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region.

SNCC found that one-third of all consumer boycotts were triggered by party- and state-affiliated organizations.

One such example was in 2019, the government-affiliated Chinese Basketball Association said it would stop cooperation with the North American National Basketball Association (NBA). This happened after the Houston Rockets general manager endorsed the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The NBA later faced a surge in nationalistic protests and boycotts.

SNCC, however, noted that the one-third figure was only the surface. 

The organization stated, “We have relied on open sources, which means that we have not been able to identify instances of state involvement where the actor in question does not have an obvious state affiliation.”

A powerful trigger

How can Beijing orchestrate hatred from Chinese consumers? Nationalism is a potent catalyst.

SNCC commented, “The concept of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” is a recurring theme of Chinese consumer boycotts.”

According to the think tank, Chinese leaders have traditionally used this phrase, which in Chinese reads 伤害了中国人民的感情, to denounce the imperialistic actions of nations that they believe have harmed China’s status as a growing power. 

On the Dalai Lama visiting Europe and was greeted by the French President, state media Xinhua News Agency wrote, “This is extremely unwise and severely hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.”

In recent years, the Chinese government’s propaganda has also pushed warnings about the effect of “Western values.” This phrase is specially promoted through educational efforts aimed at the next generation.

In 2015, China’s Ministry of Education, Yuan Guiren 袁贵仁, said, “We must never let textbooks promoting “western values” appear in our classes.” The statement was made after this department declared eradicating this topic from all university textbooks.

SNCC observed, “As feelings of animosity are known to play an important role in boycotts, it would not be surprising if such anti-western rhetoric has contributed to a rise in the number of boycotts.”

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