U.S. retail giant Walmart Inc. came to be the latest Western company caught in a storm of nationalist outrage in China—which is not unusual—after its subsidiary allegedly pulled Xinjiang products off shelves in its locally based stores.
Retail warehouse Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart, responded by putting it down to low stock, Chinese media outlets said.
Yet that failed to quell the anger of Chinese consumers. China’s anti-graft agency on Dec. 31 accused the company of “stupidity and shorted-sightedness.”
The dispute stemmed from a week ago when members of Sam’s Club said no results showed when they searched for products with the keyword “Xinjiang” via its app. Relevant products, including red dates, raisins, apples, and honey melons grown in Xinjiang, did not turn up on Dec. 31 via app search, according to an Epoch Times review.
However, some products from the region were found at a brick-and-mortar Walmart store in Beijing.
A screenshot of the search results went viral on Chinese social media Weibo. The hashtag #CancelCardOfSam has generated almost 500 million views since Dec. 29 on the Twitter-like platform.
“The Chinese can live without Sam, but not without Xinjiang!” a current affairs blogger wrote in a Dec. 31 post.
The impact can be damaging to Walmart, which generated revenue of $11.43 billion in China during its fiscal year that ended Jan. 31. Of 423 retail units Walmart operates in China, 36 are Sam’s Club stores, according to its website.
The same day, the ruling Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection accused Sam’s Club of boycotting Xinjiang products and trying to “muddle through” the controversy by remaining silent.
“To take down all products from a region without a valid reason hides an ulterior motive, reveals stupidity and short-sightedness, and will surely have its own bad consequences,” it said on its website.
On Dec. 27, the Party-affiliated Communist Youth League Central Committee also called on the public to boycott the members-only warehouse stores.
“China never lacks supermarkets,” it said via its official social media account.
It came after President Joe Biden signed on Dec. 23 a bill banning imports from China’s Xinjiang region amid concerns over forced labor and other abuses—accusations Beijing rejects. The provision is set to take effect 180 days after enactment.
Critics have said the Chinese Communist Party deems hyping nationalist sentiment a basic practice to rally the people and consolidate its rule.
The central regime in China has been stirring up “frenzied national sentiment” by accusing foreign entities of “insulting China,” said Li Yuanhua, a former associate professor at Capital Normal University.
“On the one hand, Beijing hopes to provoke mass movements to demonstrate support at home and fire up nationalism. … On the other hand, it hopes to warn foreign businesses in China to stand by the Party on global issues,” he told the Chinese language edition of The Epoch Times.
But some say they joined the boycott just to follow the trend.
“I bought the membership card but have not consumed much, feeling it’s sort of a loss. I’d take advantage of this opportunity to simply cancel it,” a member told media in China.
Last week, Intel stoked nationalist fervor in China by asking suppliers not to source products or labor from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Uyghurs are held in detention camps.
“[China] has been abusing this concept [of insulting China] to suppress political speech of dissenting views,” said Feng Chongyi, a professor of China studies at the University of Technology Sydney.
Challenges came to clothing brands earlier this year.
In March, the Communist Youth League criticized H&M’s year-old statement on banning Xinjiang cotton. Major Chinese e-commerce companies removed the company’s products and stores from their platforms. Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Converse, Puma, and Calvin Klein also triggered a full boycott and lost brand ambassadors during the campaign.
A week earlier, German automaker Mercedes-Benz provoked anger in China for using an Asian-looking model with “slanted eyes” in its advertisement. Netizens in China criticized the makeup as a reflection of Western stereotypes about Asian people.
Reuters contributed to this report.