H&M returns to China’s internet after a 16-month absence

H&M HM.B -0.12%

resumed sales on a popular e-commerce platform in China, more than a year after the Swedish fashion brand was virtually erased from the Chinese internet after it expressed concern over reports of forced labor in the country’s Xinjiang region.

Chinese social media users noted this month that H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB reopened its official store on Tmall, one of the flagship e-commerce platforms operated by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

A check by The Wall Street Journal showed that the store was operating. Fall and summer fashion lines for men and women were on sale, as was a collection of Lego building block-themed children’s clothing.

No reason was given for the reopening and the companies could not be reached for comment.

In March 2021, H&M became the poster child for the conflict between Western companies and China over purchases from the northwestern Xinjiang region. The fast-fashion retailer was obliterated by the country’s leading e-commerce, ride-hailing, daily deals and maps apps and websites. In 2020, H&M had issued a statement expressing concern over reports of forced labor and discrimination against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. It also said it did not source products from the region and that it strictly prohibits forced labor in its supply chain. The Swedish company’s stance drew the ire of Chinese social media users, who vowed to boycott the brand.

Meanwhile, a search for “H&M” still returns no results on many Chinese apps, including maps apps owned by Baidu Inc.

and Alibaba, a consumer review platform powered by Meituan and Didi Global Inc.’s

ride-hailing app.

The Chinese government has targeted the Xinjiang region’s mainly Muslim ethnic minorities with mass internment camps and ubiquitous surveillance as part of a years-long campaign of forced assimilation. Rights groups have claimed that some former camp prisoners have been forced to work in factories.

China has called allegations of forced labor “malicious lies” and described its actions in Xinjiang as necessary measures to fight terrorism and protect national security.

Beijing is hitting back at international criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang with a propaganda push on Facebook, Twitter and the big screen. Here’s how China’s campaign against Western brands is targeting audiences at home and abroad. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Since then, other apparel companies such as Nike have Inc.

and Adidas AG

as well as the semiconductor manufacturer Intel corp.

has been singled out by Chinese social media users for procurement practices in Xinjiang. A new US law bans virtually all imports from Xinjiang under the presumption that goods produced there, or by entities linked to the government there, were made with forced labor.

The Swedish fast-fashion retailer was hit hard by the consumer boycott and subsequent internet blackout. Before the Xinjiang flare-up, China was H&M’s third largest market after the US and Germany. Shortly after the online deletion, China had fallen to sixth place. In its fourth fiscal quarter, which ended in November, China was H&M’s eighth-largest market, while sales in the country were down about 40% from the same quarter a year earlier. This fiscal year, the retailer stopped reporting its list of top 10 largest markets.

This year, the retailer said it was still struggling in the market as the Covid-19 outbreak swept the country. The dozens of Chinese stores the retailer closed included its flagship store in Shanghai, the first store it had opened in the country 15 years before.

H&M chief Helena Helmersson, who has previously called China an important market for the retailer, said in June that the company was still in a complex situation there. Mrs. Helmersson added that the retailer was in talks with various stakeholders in China.

H&M’s official account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform has not posted any updates since late March.

Write to Clarence Leong at clarence.leong@wsj.com and Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com

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