A post on March 23 on the Chinese website Weibo resurfaced a months-old statement from the clothing store H&M, which said it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor.” The Swedish-based retailer added that it did not use cotton or products from Xinjiang, a region where both the Trump and Biden administrations have said China is committing genocide against Uighurs. After the Weibo post, Chinese state broadcasters called upon the people to boycott Western companies that did not use Xinjiang cotton. In addition to online maps removing H&M stores, Huawei deleted Nike and Adidas from its app store, and Chinese celebrities canceled deals with companies that don’t use Xinjiang cotton. The boycott has forced H&M to close 20 stores and sends a message to other companies that may criticize China’s human rights abuses. This retaliation is yet another episode in the emerging geopolitical rivalry between the People’s Republic of China and democracies globally.

Many had suspected that China used forced labor to pick cotton in Xinjiang—an area that produces 87 percent of China’s cotton and 22 percent of the world’s. But last year a study detailed how government documents collaborated accusations that the state was using forced labor, as the BBC reports. For example, in papers detailing how the government recruits cotton pickers among the Uighurs, clues emerge how they are not willing volunteers. In one village, a document says the people were “unwilling to work in agriculture,” so officials returned to do “thought education work” that convinced some to go into the fields. Other state papers show how the regime uses control and surveillance measures against the pickers that would not occur if they willingly chose this difficult job. Uighurs abroad told the BBC how their families in Xinjiang do this work because they fear going to jail or worse. Other reports say the government forces former detainees at “reeducation” facilities in Xinjiang to work in textile factories. The practice appears widespread, with the regime forcing an estimated 570,000 Uighurs to pick cotton, as Olivia Enos explains. In another example of more forced labor in the region, satellite photos reveal a newly constructed prison next to a newly constructed factory, with a line of people in clothing of the same color walking between the facilities.

Last year the Geneva-based Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) found forced labor may be used to produce cotton in Xinjiang, and its members—including H&M, Nike, Adidas, and Burberry—said they would not use this product. This week BCI’s office in Shanghai contradicted its headquarters, though one can imagine what the authoritarian regime would do to the China branch if it confirmed the organization’s findings. Besides, labor expert Frank Hoffer says investigators cannot easily verify that cotton in Xinjiang does not use forced labor because the state would hinder their efforts. Some auditing firms have also stopped factory audits in Xinjiang because the government prevents workers from speaking freely.

Because of the mounting evidence, last July the US government warned businesses, “In addition to the forced labor present in the province, there is evidence of forced prison labor in the cotton, apparel, and agricultural sectors.” Importing products made with forced labor is already illegal, and in January the US put an import ban on all products made with Xinjiang cotton.

Even though H&M and others first mentioned concern about the forced labor months ago, China’s boycott of these companies came after the US, UK, EU, and Canada placed sanctions on Chinese officials for atrocities against Uighurs. On March 22 when announcing the sanctions, Secretary of State Antony Blinkin said, “Amid growing international condemnation, the PRC continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.” Along with an earlier contentious meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska, these coordinated sanctions indicate the Biden administration will join allies to continue Washington’s hard stance toward Beijing that the Trump administration started.

China retaliated with sanctions, but the boycott shows how the regime can mobilize its people to attack businesses that mention or criticize its human rights abuses, as it did in other international spats. Besides helping its cotton industry recover from the US import ban, the boycott promotes the CCP’s message to its people that the force labor allegations are Western propaganda to undermine the regime. Based on the response in China, the regime appears to have achieved this domestic goal. As the geopolitical conflict between China and the US develops, global businesses will likely get caught in the crossfire again and should prepare for such political risk.

China’s economy could be larger than America’s in seven years, so the CCP’s ability to mobilize popular boycotts is a significant threat against companies who want access to that market. Other companies have responded to this episode, like Zara’s owner Inditex, which removed statements about forced labor in Xinjiang from its website. In 2019 during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the NBA and its players also showed how China’s economic clout could silence human rights advocates in America. Then in 2020, Disney thanked security officials in Xinjiang for helping the company film Mulan there.

Those concerned about genocide, forced labor, and international religious liberty should remain vigilant and monitor events in Xinjiang and how businesses respond after the H&M boycott. Moreover, human rights advocates should raise these issues with political leaders and fellow citizens to help keep them united against such atrocities. While access to the Soviet economy may not have been an enticing lure during the Cold War, opportunities in the Chinese market today could tempt global businesses to ignore state crimes or repeat PRC talking points, even if it threatens US interests. Because this rivalry is not ending soon, the CCP will likely use these tactics again.