Chinese state media attacked a Xinjiang-born professional basketball player after he signed an endorsement deal with Adidas, which has faced boycott calls in the communist nation for its stance against Uyghur forced labor.
Chinese Communist Party propaganda paper Global Times accused Hu Mingxuan of sparking "a tsunami of anger" after the Guangdong Southern Tigers point guard announced he was "happy to join the Adidas family" in September. The team reportedly fined Hu for the endorsement and will now require players to land approval before signing with foreign brands.
The controversy marks the latest example of China attempting to use its economic might to bend both foreign and domestic detractors to its will. Chinese state media promoted a boycott of Adidas and other foreign brands in early 2021 after the companies voiced concern over sourcing cotton from the Xinjiang region, where China has forced more than a million Uyghurs into concentration camps. Adidas saw its sales drop significantly in the aftermath—a trend it likely hoped to reverse through Hu's endorsement.
Adidas did not return a request for comment.
Chinese social media platform Weibo also moved to censor Hu's endorsement announcement. After Hu said he "look[ed] forward to creating more possibilities together" with Adidas in a late September post, Weibo attached a disclaimer saying the "blog post involving marketing promotion is under review and cannot be disseminated." Hu has not posted on the site since he announced the endorsement. While Chinese state media highlighted a string of angry comments directed toward Hu from "netizens"—including one that accused him of "kneeling down" to Adidas—the basketball star's Weibo post received overwhelmingly positive comments.
Hu is not the first Chinese celebrity to face backlash for his ties to Adidas and other foreign companies. Singers Wang Yibo and Eason Chan ditched lucrative endorsements with the likes of Adidas and Nike in March; Wang blamed Nike for using "words and actions that pollute China." Both Adidas and Nike are members of the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that promotes sustainable cotton production. BCI in October 2020 said it would no longer approve cotton sourced from Xinjiang, citing the crop's ties to forced labor camps.
The Chinese Communist Party and its propaganda mouthpieces have repeatedly denied the "so-called existence of forced labor in the Xinjiang region." Global Times, for example, accused Adidas of being "involved in groundless slander and attacks against Xinjiang cotton." Both the Trump and Biden administrations have labeled China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang as "genocide" and "crimes against humanity."
A number of Chinese-owned companies have sided with their communist leaders amid boycott campaigns against foreigners who have criticized the regime. Anta Sports—which owns the company that makes the NBA's official game balls—threatened to terminate endorsement deals with U.S. players after league executive Daryl Morey expressed support for democracy protests in Hong Kong. Anta later left BCI in March. The company is likely "complicit in the use of forced labor," according to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.