Western teams in Olympics silent over suspected use of Xinjiang cotton by Chinese brands

Nadia Lam and Jack Lau, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 02 2021 12:58 PM

As athletes show off their physique and prowess at the Tokyo Games, a little-known Chinese sportswear maker called Peak Sport Products is also making its mark on the Olympic stage.

There is nothing surprising about this as mid-range sportswear brands come and go, but Peak, which counts New Zealand, Iceland and Belgium among the seven delegations it is sponsoring, is a vocal advocate of the use of cotton from China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

“As a Chinese brand, we have always purchased Xinjiang cotton and Chinese cotton! Chinese brand, Chinese-made! I support Xinjiang cotton!” Peak chief executive Ren Zhihua wrote on his Weibo page in March and posted a cotton supply contract with Xinjiang Litai Silk Road Investment, a company accused of using forced labour, to prove his point.

Western countries and human rights groups have alleged such cotton was harvested with forced labour. Beijing has repeatedly denied forced labour exists in Xinjiang, saying the cotton industry there has been largely mechanised.

Peak is also sponsoring the Olympic committees of Romania, Brazil, Slovenia and Ukraine and the Olympic men’s basketball teams of Germany, Iran and Nigeria, and the Serbian women’s team.

The German national team have worn Peak basketball socks bearing reference numbers WB03 and WB07, which are made of 76 per cent cotton, Peak Germany said in its online catalogue. At the Olympics, some basketball players of the Peak-sponsored teams have worn identically looking socks.

The product label attached to WB07 socks says they are made in China, which in June, according to the Chinese cotton association’s monthly survey, had 90.6 per cent of its cotton produced in Xinjiang.

While it cannot be confirmed if Xinjiang cotton is used in their Olympic gear, what is clear is that no country has staged a protest because of the sportswear maker’s declared national loyalty for the fabric.

The South China Morning Post has reached out by phone and email to the teams for comment, while none of the Olympic committees have responded, except the Romanian committee, whose athletes have worn Peak since the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

It said in an email the athletes were “very happy with the quality of the materials and the design” of the Peak uniforms, which were worn everywhere at the Games except on the field of play. It did not specify whether cotton from Xinjiang was used in the uniforms, when asked to respond to the cotton controversy.

Peak is only one of at least five Chinese brands supporting the use of Xinjiang cotton that are dressing athletes during the current Games.

Fila Marketing (Hong Kong) has been the apparel sponsor of the city’s delegation since 2011. The firm is indirectly owned by Anta Sports, which quit the Switzerland-based Better Cotton Initiative after the network cut ties with Xinjiang over forced-labour allegations.

The largest Chinese sportswear brand, Anta Sports said on Weibo in March that its products would continue to use Xinjiang cotton.

Fila China, another subsidiary, said it “has always purchased and used cotton produced in China including that from the Xinjiang region” in a statement on Weibo.

The Hong Kong Olympic committee, which seeks its uniform sponsors independently of the Chinese Olympic Committee, did not respond to an email request for comment on the controversy, saying only it “[appreciated] the continuous support from Fila” and would “keep reviewing the cooperation with different sponsors from time to time”.

Chinese brands such as Anta Sports have benefited from growing nationalism amid Xinjiang-cotton-linked sanctions, which Chinese consumers took as an assault on China’s economy and development and went on a short-lived buying spree to punish foreign brands distancing themselves from Xinjiang.

Anta Sports has also supplied uniforms of International Olympic Committee (IOC) staff and members since the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and is the IOC’s official sportswear uniform supplier from 2019 to 2022.

Hengyuanxiang Group, which sells products made with Xinjiang cotton, also supplied official formal uniforms to the IOC’s members and administrative staff members for the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, as well as the opening ceremony uniform to the 29 athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team, according to the company’s website.

Neither Hengyuanxiang nor Anta Sports responded to requests for comment.

But the IOC said in a reply: “For our uniforms in Tokyo no cotton was used and we have been working closely with Anta to monitor the conditions in the factories producing our goods.” The IOC also said Hengyuanxiang showed certificates of origin showing that its uniforms used cotton from outside China, but did not provide a copy.

“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the IOC added in an emailed statement on the 2022 Beijing Olympics, which have been the target of boycott calls by human rights groups. “Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee (NOC) does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country.”

On the other hand, despite Chinese consumers boycotting foreign brands and Chinese celebrities terminating their endorsement deals, the Chinese men’s basketball team and women’s volleyball team have stayed with their respective Nike and Adidas kits.

The companies did not respond to requests for comments.

Public outcry has caused, for instance, India to drop Chinese brand Li-Ning as its official partner for the Olympics, as tensions rose between the two countries after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in border clashes last year.

Indian athletes now wear unbranded uniforms to Tokyo, the Indian Olympic Association said.

The Chinese teams stuck with their sponsors – despite public pressure – because they had deep ties and long-term collaboration with them, said Fan Di, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University specialising in fashion retail and marketing.

“The Chinese men’s basketball team and Nike have cooperated for more than 20 years and gained momentum,” he said.

“Long-term collaborations allow better communication and understanding of the athletes so that sports gear can be customised to the team’s requirements.”

When selecting sponsors, Olympic committees and sports teams needed to consider whether the sportswear company aligned with their team’s image and spirit, apart from the functionality and design of the product, Fan said.

The Chinese Football Association entered into a 12-year contract with Nike in 2015, while the German Basketball Federation’s partnership with Peak was extended in 2017 until 2028.

“They have to pay a huge amount of compensation if they want to terminate the contract before it ends,” Fan said. “Searching for a new sponsor is another concern. Time is needed to replace and examine whether the new supplier suits them.”

To ensure the brand fulfils the contract, the committees and teams should constantly conduct factory audits, Fan said.

“There are conditions on contract termination … if they have not dropped [the Chinese brands], we could infer that they have not found sufficient evidence to support the false labour accusation,” he added.

Fan believed that sportswear could be an area for countries to soothe geopolitical tensions.

“At the Olympics, people put the spotlight on the athletes’ performance instead of the brand they collaborate with,” he said. “It helps with soothing geopolitical tensions because at least we did not see any decoupling happen.”

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