Consumer boycotts in China are contemptible attack on foreign firms

Companies have a social responsibility to respect human rights, a principle that has been confirmed by the United Nations. It is unacceptable for China to seek to shut out of its market companies that showed concern over the suppression of human rights.

The U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights stipulate that states and business enterprises are obligated to respect human rights and take adequate measures when problems arise.

In recent years, attention has been focused on China’s oppression of the Uighur ethnic minority, including forced labor. As the governments of Western countries have criticized human rights abuses and strengthened sanctions against China, businesses have announced that they support human rights and expressed their intention to review their procurement of materials from China.

Companies in Western countries are under scrutiny from consumers and shareholders over their attitude toward human rights. It is only natural for them to take action based on the U.N. principles.

In response to such moves, consumer boycotts and obstructions of business activities have become widespread in China.

Swedish clothing giant H&M Group was targeted after it decided not to use cotton grown in a region where the Uighurs live. Chinese netizens urged people through online posts never to buy from H&M again, and it reportedly became impossible to search for H&M products on online shopping sites in China.

Sportswear makers Nike, Inc. of the United States and Germany’s Adidas AG, as well as Japanese clothing firm Fast Retailing Co., were also criticized on the internet for having shown concern over human rights issues.

The Chinese government exercises strict control over the internet. The fact that the government has kept silent regarding the online criticism against foreign firms represents Beijing’s de facto support for the boycott campaigns.

“Companies should correct their mistakes and avoid making this a political issue,” a spokesperson at the Chinese Commerce Ministry said. The statement appears to reflect the country’s self-righteous stance, demanding companies refrain from criticizing China in order to continue doing business in the Chinese market.

Companies conducting normal business activities should not be put under unfair pressure to please Chinese authorities. China, for its part, cannot disregard U.N. principles regarding business enterprises and human rights while stressing that it places great importance on that international organization.

Among the Group of Seven industrialized nations, Japan is the only country that has not imposed sanctions against China. Tokyo has merely expressed concern over the situation of the Uighur ethnic minority. Japanese firms, for this reason, are faced with a difficult decision about how far they should apply the principle of respecting human rights.

The Japanese government needs to state clearly that putting pressure on businesses is unacceptable, based on the U.N. principles.

The G7 has called for an on-site investigation into the Uighur crackdown, but the Chinese government has refused. If there is no truth to the allegations of human rights abuse, as Beijing has insisted, why does it not allow the investigation? Japan, which shares the same values with the United States and Europe, should strongly urge China to accept the investigation.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 16, 2021.