In March, international clothing brands such as H&M, UNIQLO and Adidas caught the ire of Chinese social media. The initial outcry against foreign brands was spurred by H&M’s recent decision to stop relying on cotton sourced from Xinjiang due to concerns of forced labor and human rights abuses, and has since evolved into a broader online movement to “support Xinjiang cotton.”
Chinese celebrities are severing ties with foreign brands, TV platforms are blurring logos of the offending companies, and domestic clothing brands are doubling-down on their support for cotton produced in Xinjiang. Foreign journalists accused of “inciting” the companies to distance themselves from the mass detention and forced labor in Xinjiang are the subject of vitriolic online attack. Cotton sourced from Xinjiang supplies 85 percent of China’s cotton and 20 percent of the worldwide cotton supply, but nationalist Chinese netizens are increasingly intolerant of any action they believe constitutes “bullying” China.
This debacle reveals underlying trends not only in how foreign companies must navigate their business environment amidst the Xinjiang genocide but also in China’s information management of politically sensitive issues. The progression of state discourse on Xinjiang follows different trends than more familiar approaches to censorship of politically sensitive issues, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Falun Gong. Specifically, China’s evolving approach to managing information on Xinjiang has evolved from one of exclusive denial to crafting a parallel narrative that links supporting Xinjiang cotton with supporting China, and rejecting foreign “bullies.”
The Familiar Contours of Information Control
Politically sensitive topics are systematically monitored and censored through an information control regime Margaret Roberts describes as “porous censorship.” In this model, netizens are disincentivized from accessing information through three mechanisms: fear (threats and punishment for spreading and accessing sensitive information), friction (increasing the costs of accessing information), and flooding (coordinated information that competes with sensitive information through distraction). These mechanisms are “porous” because while they aim to block the access and spread of certain sensitive topics, the “Great Firewall” is often permeable by those with the means to evade it. Yet, the strategy is ultimately successful in its ability to create barriers for most, not all, citizens to access and spread sensitive information, creating an online barrier between the masses and the elite who choose to circumnavigate it.
Often, the mechanisms behind the Great Firewall are all designed to prevent and distract attention from sensitive issues. The archetypal examples of Chinese government censorship — for example, historical information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, or the expulsion and repression of the Falon Gong — are defined by their lack of information. Banned keywords, scrubbed archives, and blocked foreign news outlets are familiar realities of the Chinese digital ecosystem. Those who do criticize the government online are regularly punished. Most recently, an online application called Clubhouse allowed a brief window through the firewall for citizens to discuss recognized sensitive issues: Taiwan, the Hong Kong protests, and the ongoing Xinjiang genocide amongst others. The platform was blocked within days, re-affirming the familiar environment of silence on sensitive issues.
What makes China’s shifting state strategy on Xinjiang information management unique is that in addition to traditional approach to censorship — which prevents access to information and instills fear of discussion or doubting state narratives — there seems to be a shift to fill the censored silence with noise. This is similar to Robert’s flooding mechanism, wherein authorities produce and disseminate information through traditional media outlets and social media to compete with sensitive information for user attention. The state’s strategy on controlling information on Xinjiang expands beyond “flooding” by not only overwhelming social media with generic pro-government posts, but also actively constructing a government-endorsed narrative that non-government netizens discuss, support, and organically amplify. This narrative functions in a symbiosis with actual, grassroots nationalists who amplify, supplement, and even provide new information for state-produced and endorsed narratives.
The Xinjiang Cotton Strategy
To be sure, accurate information on the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang is near impossible to access on the Chinese internet. Foreign reporting, much of which is based on advanced satellite imagery analysis, has been crucial for the discovery and documentation of forced labor camps. But, by denouncing H&M on Weibo for declaring that the clothing chain would not use forced labor in its supply chain, the Communist Youth League invited discussion on the topic. Of course, that discussion is limited to the complete denial of human rights abuses in the region. But nonetheless, this is a strategy equally of information construction as of information erasure.
This constructed narrative on Xinjiang has developed three main themes: conflating criticism of Xinjiang with bullying China, linking support for Xinjiang-produced cotton with support for the PRC, and identifying the “West” (and especially the United States) as hypocritical for its historical human rights abuses. The “I support Xinjiang Cotton” hashtag (#我支持新疆棉花) garnered over four billion Weibo views by the end of March. Countless videos and posts are circulating of citizens burning their Nike shoes in response to Western foreign “bullies.” There are calls for boycotting foreign brands, and foreign critics are regularly lambasted. H&M was removed from Baidu Maps and e-commerce platforms. State media platforms produced and recycled illustrations of slavery in the United States to criticize its history of slavery and cotton production, and amplified indignant memes about foreign companies such as H&M.
The relationship between the Party propaganda apparatus and grassroots nationalists are mutually reinforcing, wherein the “state dictates the parameters of accepted speech, and user-generated content, in return, gives the state a wide variety of ‘real material,’ from which it can choose what to amplify.” Celebrities and other public figures are likely under significant government pressure to denounce H&M and foreign brands. They are also just as likely subject to the bottom-up pressure of an increasingly nationalist fan base that explicitly aligns commercial brand identity with a pro-Chinese government position. If traditional strategies of censorship are designed to prevent groups from coalescing on overlapping interests, this new strategy is one that seeks to align the masses with the elite: grassroots nationalists and the highly visible public figures who represent elite opinion. This type of manufactured collective action serves the twin purposes of suppressing sensitive information and providing a parallel interpretation of that information which reaffirms the Chinese government’s position. Chinese netizens are not cloistered individuals duped into believing a falsity: they are patriotic and nationalistic internet users emboldened by an environment that permits discourse on a sensitive topic.
Implications of a New Censorship Approach
Most Chinese citizens — including the educated and wealthy elite who regularly circumnavigate the Great Firewall — still choose to distance themselves from Xinjiang rather than explicitly join the growing hypernationalist chorus. Most are largely unaware of the ongoing atrocities and prefer not to venture into the maelstrom to investigate further. But a strategy that invites discussion on any sensitive topic is inherently risky, as it increases the amount of discourse the censors must then monitor. In February, the government pursued a similar media campaign of four Chinese soldiers who died in a skirmish on the Sino-Indian border. A similar pattern of producing and encouraging a specific pro-government narrative emerged, but when a few popular bloggers criticized that narrative, they were promptly arrested and denounced by scores of their followers.
Shifting from a strategy of complete denial and erasure to one of narrative construction and “alternative facts” may inevitably create more holes in China’s porous censorship model. If this model is replicated across issue areas — which it seems to be, given the similar coverage patterns of the China-India border dispute, the Hong Kong protests, and now the shifting discourse on Xinjiang — it may indicate an underlying shift in Chinas information management and censorship strategy, rather than a tactic specific to the ongoing Xinjiang genocide.