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In China, a boycott of leading global brands that have announced they will not use cotton produced using the forced labor of Muslims in Xinjiang province continues. Among the targets of this boycott are Swedish apparel manufacturer H&M and American and German sportswear manufacturers Nike and Adidas.

In March 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported that more than 80,000 ethnic Uyghurs had been transferred from detention centers in Xinjiang to provide forced labor at Chinese factories supplying components and materials such as cotton to leading global companies.

The new Biden administration has since used the word “genocide” to describe the human rights violations and religious discrimination against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, with Western consumers intensifying pressure on companies to boycott Xinjiang cotton. In March, the issue prompted the E.U. to adopt sanctions against China under its Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. H&M subsequently announced it would no longer source products made with Xinjiang cotton.

In response to the Western boycott of Xinjiang cotton, all of China has rallied behind a patriotic movement to support Xinjiang cotton and boycott imported goods.

The Global Times on April 2 opined that while Western companies were “playing the political card,” there was, in fact, a mastermind behind the scenes. That mastermind, according to the Chinese daily, is the U.S. government. As evidence, the Global Times cited remarks made by Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

At a seminar in 2018, Wilkerson argued that the best way to destabilize China was from the inside: “We are in Afghanistan … because there are 20 million Uyghurs and if the CIA has to mount an operation using those Uyghurs … . Well, the CIA would want to destabilize China and that would be the best way to do it, (to foment unrest and join with those Uyghurs in pushing the Han Chinese in Beijing) from internal places rather than external.”

China’s national memory is often invoked in such boycotts of foreign goods. Before World War II, the only real weapon a poor and weak China had was its large population — in other words, its market size. Given this, China’s rulers would use the threat of a boycott of foreign commodities as leverage during negotiations with foreign powers.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and the 120th anniversary of the Boxer Protocol, a humiliating treaty that China was forced to sign with the great powers following the Boxer Rebellion. Those two anniversaries may go toward helping to explain the emergence of the “Xinjiang cotton patriotic movement.”

Famous companies that have faced the indignation of Chinese consumers in recent years include Italy’s Dolce & Gabbana, Germany’s Daimler, South Korea’s Lotte and the U.K.’s HSBC. The respective causes of Chinese consumer outrage have been a commercial mocking Chinese culture and traditions by featuring a Chinese woman being taught to use chopsticks; an Instagram ad quoting the Dalai Lama; the supply of land to a U.S. military base (with the knowledge this would support U.S. military reconnaissance activities and anti-Chinese policies); and the so-called “selling out” of China’s “national treasure,” Huawei, to U.S. legal authorities when information on trade dealings with the company were handed over.

Yet the tenor of the Xinjiang cotton patriotic movement is different from that of previous foreign boycotts. It is informed by the recent and widely-heralded advent of guochao, or “China chic.” Guochao involves the rediscovery and reconfiguration of traditional Chinese design, primarily for and by Chinese millennials.

This in itself has nothing to do with xenophobic sentiment. On the contrary, guochao can be seen as an expression of Chinese confidence. Chinese products are catching up with and may well surpass foreign products in terms of quality. Indeed, the quality of Chinese apparel and other products is improving steadily.

Yet the guochao trend conceals a latent longing for greater international recognition — or more precisely, a longing to become an inspirational focus for the outside world. Guochao is also a signal that China will no longer tolerate being viewed as an inferior latecomer. After all, the U.S. is no longer qualified to criticize China when it comes to human rights or democracy after losing its moral high ground following the Trump administration and George Floyd.

There is also frustration that other countries’ “ignorance of the facts or truth about China” prevents China from attaining the recognition it deserves. This is not so different from the more widespread and aggressive need for widespread approval manifested by Beijing’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomats,” who not only launch counteroffensives every time China is criticized but also express anger when China receives insufficient praise for its accomplishments.

The geoeconomics behind China’s foreign boycotts are not only about the reputation and market position of Chinese products but are also part of a geopolitical game aimed at boosting the pride and status of the nation and its people.

In the U.S., a bipartisan consensus is emerging on the need for a hard-line approach to China. China will likely respond by clamping down further on American companies in the Chinese market and reconfiguring the kinds of pressure it exerts on the U.S.

In short, China is witnessing the advent of the Xi Jinping Doctrine of China’s International Relations. In an April 2020 speech, President Xi Jinping emphasized two geoeconomic strategies: strengthening the “gravitational force” of the vast Chinese market and tightening the embeddedness of foreign companies within China’s global supply chain to “form a powerful countermeasure and deterrent capability against foreigners who would artificially cut off supply (to China).”

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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