The rise of China as a global economic superpower in the space of thirty to forty years is the most rapid example of economic growth in the history of the global economy. Since the 1980s, approximately 850 million people have been lifted from poverty in China; this is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Africa in the new millennium.
Interestingly, this transformation happened with minimal foreign aid, instead occurring through a combination of state-led market intervention  and rampant  market forces. Chinese companies have risen first to domestic prominence, beating global tech titans  such as Google, and then to foreign markets where Chinese companies such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu have large portfolios of foreign investments and subsidiaries.
Fueling this economic boom has been the growth in Chinese consumer spending. If we look at growth in global wealth from 1988 to 2008, the Chinese middle class has seen their income level rise by more than any other demographic in the world. Thus, for the international companies that have successfully entered the Chinese market, maintaining popularity and access is a matter of utmost importance. Nike, for example, has seen sales in China surpass its North American sales in the first quarter of 2021. This underlines the importance of the Chinese consumer market to western retailers.
Alongside the rapid growth of China’s consumer market, Western consumers have begun to place a heightened level of importance on the ethics of their consumption. The fashion industry has been particularly targeted for its environmental impact, as well as its treatment of labor throughout its supply chains. This has created a ‘perfect storm’ for backlash against Xinjiang cotton which has burst onto the global stage in the wider context of condemnations of China following the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. This wave of anti-Chinese backlash has been driven by the odd bedfellows of former president Donald Trump, conservative voices in other western democracies, and civil rights groups.
Xinjiang currently provides approximately twenty percent of the global supply of cotton. However, in recent years, China has increased the number of Uighurs living in camps in the region, often forced to work against their will or attend re-education sessions. The detention is arbitrary and there have been accusations of forced sterilizations, violence, and extreme mistreatment inside the camps. Religious oppression against the mostly Islamic Uighur population has also occurred, with religious affiliation often used as a justification for imprisonment.
Despite this backlash, China maintains a powerful hand. As previously noted, the Chinese market is critical to many western companies, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated a willingness to take extreme measures against these companies when pushed. Hennes & Mauritz, often abbreviated H&M, is one of the world’s largest clothing retailers, and yet was pulled from a Chinese e-commerce platform for refusing to use Xinjiang cotton. Ride-hailing apps such as DiDi even refused to accept H&M stores as a destination for users. Many may also remember the painful withdrawal of Google from China. When many believed that the loss of Google would be a critical blow to Chinese economic growth, the opposite was, in fact, true. The loss of foreign companies often promotes the rise of more dynamic Chinese alternatives, in this case, Baidu.
There is also another aspect to this story. China is a developing economy. It has already been argued that the rise of the Chinese economy has been the greatest story of poverty alleviation, and thus the single most significant humanitarian event in the history of civilization. An entire continent has risen from starvation to moderate prosperity in almost two generations. It could be argued that western corporate intervention could be seen as an example of neo-imperialism, driven less by ethical concerns, and more by fears over a loss in dominance. Trying to limit this economic growth risks withdrawing from this great poverty alleviation project.
Others, such as Kishore Mahbubani, a world-renowned Singaporean academic, official, and author of books on the rise of China and India, have also argued that these actions against China only strengthen the CCP and push China further away from democracy. Whilst there has been considerable economic development in urbanized and coastal Chinese regions, the countryside still remains comparatively poor. Unlike in places such as Korea and Taiwan, China has yet to fully modernize, as such many argue that China does not yet have the level of development required to sustain a healthy democracy.
Finally, it could be argued that it simply isn’t economically feasible to force western companies to change their supply chains in a pandemic that has already severely disrupted global supply chains. With many companies struggling, is it reasonable to expect them to break the habits that have supplied western markets for decades?