Chinese celebrities are finding it increasingly difficult to stay out of politics.
Due to China's tight restrictions on free speech, most of the country's stars have been outwardly apolitical by default. But as China embraces a new wave of apparent nationalism -- promoted by the ruling Communist Party and amplified by state media -- it seems staying silent is no longer a viable option.
Over the past two days, Chinese actors, singers and models have spoken up en masse to defend Beijing's policy on Xinjiang, as a nationalist-fueled backlash erupted against some international clothing brands for expressing concerns over allegations of forced labor, and refusing to use cotton produced in the western region.
Human rights groups have accused Beijing of detaining Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in internment camps across Xinjiang, and using them for forced labor, which they claim is part of global tech and retail supply chains, either directly or indirectly.
Recent sanctions from the United States and other Western countries over Xinjiang have sparked a renewed pushback from the Chinese government, which calls the camps "vocational training centers" designed to combat terrorism and religious extremism. China has repeatedly and vehemently denied accusations of forced labor in the camps.
In December, the US government said it would block imports of cotton produced in Xinjiang over concerns it "may have been made by slave labor in some of the most egregious human rights violations existing today."
However, in a striking move this week, more than 30 Chinese celebrities have ended their promotional partnerships or said they would cut ties with brands they accused of "smearing" cotton produced in Xinjiang, including H&M, Nike, Adidas, Puma and Calvin Klein.
The scale of the celebrity exodus is unprecedented -- so much so that on Chinese social media, March 25 has been dubbed "contract termination day" among China's entertainment circles.
Actor Wang Yibo performs on stage on November 2, 2019 in the Chinese city of Nanjing.
Credit: Visual China Group/Getty Images
Other celebrities also showed allegiance by sharing the hashtag "I support Xinjiang's cotton," which has been viewed nearly 5 billion times since it was posted Wednesday by party mouthpiece People's Daily on Weibo, China's heavily-censored version of Twitter.
The collective support from celebrities is just the latest example of the role they are expected to play in an ever more nationalistic China -- that of vocal defenders of the country's actions, even if it means sacrificing their own business opportunities.
While some of them are more than happy to speak out, either because of their genuine support for the government or the pragmatic belief that doing so could benefit their careers, others simply cannot afford to stay silent under intense online pressure and public scrutiny.
'A nation's dignity is not to be violated'
The latest outrage comes after the Party's youth wing, the Communist Youth League, on Wednesday posted an old statement from H&M, about Xinjiang on Weibo. In the statement, which was released in September 2020, H&M, the world's second-largest clothing retailer, said that it was "deeply concerned" over reports of forced labor in the production of cotton in Xinjiang and that it had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region.
People walk by the flagship store of clothing brand H&M at a shopping area on March 25, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
In the Weibo post, the Communist Youth League denounced the company's stance. "Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton while trying to make a profit in China? Wishful thinking!" it said.
Actor Huang Xuan, who had been a brand ambassador for H&M since last April, announced soon after that he would no longer work with the company. Another H&M ambassador, Song Qian, followed with a similar announcement.
But the public ire did not stop at H&M. Social media users found a statement from Nike, published nearly a year ago, that said it was "concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, Xinjiang."
As the outrage spread to Nike, its brand ambassador Wang Yibo came under fire for not immediately cutting ties with the company. Amid growing criticism over his silence, Wang's agency eventually announced on Thursday morning that the star had ended all cooperation with the sportswear brand.
"Our agency and Mr. Wang resolutely resist any remark and action that smears China. A nation's dignity is not to be violated. (We) resolutely safeguard the motherland's interest," the statement said.
Throughout Thursday, more and more celebrities followed suit, cutting ties with fashion brands linked to the Better Cotton Initiative, a non-profit group based in Geneva and London, that promotes sustainable cotton production, which said in October it was suspending its approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang, citing human rights concerns.
Partnering with famous Western brands has long been a coveted business opportunity -- they can be lucrative and help Chinese celebrities gain international clout. For the brands themselves, tapping into the world's largest luxury market via stars with followings in the millions, is good for business.
But in recent years, these seemingly innocuous deals come with greater risk for stars.
In 2018, Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana ignited an outcry in China after releasing promotional videos featuring an Asian model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks, drawing accusations of racism. To make matters worse, one of its co-founders was then accused of making derogatory remarks about Chinese people as he defended the ads in private Instagram messages (the Italian designer denied posting them, insisting his account was hacked).
Amid the outrage that followed, two of D&G's Asia Pacific brand ambassadors, singer and actor Wang Junkai and actress Dilraba Dilmurat, terminated their contracts with the luxury label.
"The motherland is absolutely not to be violated. The motherland is above everything," Wang's representative office said in a statement at the time.
In 2019, during the height of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, luxury fashion houses Coach, Versace and Givenchy were accused by Chinese consumers of undermining the country's sovereignty by designing T-shirts that listed Hong Kong and Macau -- China's two special administrative regions -- as countries.
Following the uproar, a slew of Chinese celebrities, including model Liu Wen and actress Yang Mi, quickly cut ties with the fashion brands.
In other instances, Chinese stars have been affected by politics as a result of direct orders from the Chinese government.
In 2019, China's film regulator blocked the mainland's movie industry from participating in Taiwan's Golden Horse awards, dubbed the "Chinese-language Oscars," amid rising tensions between Beijing and the self-ruled democratic island.
The ban came after the event, stirred questions about Taiwan's independence in late 2018, when a Taiwanese best documentary winner said she hoped the territory would "one day be treated as a genuine independent entity."
Top image: Dilraba Dilmurat arrives at the red carpet of 2019 Tencent Star Awards on December 28, 2019 in Beijing, China. Her agency stated that she decided to cut ties with Adidas on Thursday.
CNN has reached out to international brands named in the article for comment.