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H&M Stores Vanish From China Maps as Xinjiang Spat Worsens

By Vlad Savov

26 March 2021, 03:57 GMT Updated on 26 March 2021, 05:20 GMT

Hennes & Mauritz AB outlets appeared not to show up on Apple Maps and Baidu Maps searches in China on Friday after the fashion retailer found itself at the center of an escalating spat over human rights in the contentious region of Xinjiang.

Users in Beijing reported that any searches for H&M in either Apple Maps on the iPhone or Baidu Maps returned no results. Competing retailers, such as Uniqlo outlets, continued showing as usual. A similar search in Google Maps showed over a dozen H&M locations in the capital or its vicinity, though that service is only accessible to locals via the use of a virtual private network that skirts a state ban on products from the Alphabet Inc. unit. Apple Inc. sources its mapping data in China from AutoNavi Software Co. -- owned by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. -- while Baidu Inc. collects its own. Representatives of the tech companies as well as H&M didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The disappearance of H&M’s physical stores from online maps comes after the retailer was removed from Alibaba’s e-commerce platform earlier this week as the controversy escalated. The company had been blasted by China’s Communist Youth League and the People’s Liberation Army Wednesday after social-media users dug out an undated statement about accusations of forced labor in the region’s cotton-picking industry. The statement appears to have since been removed from H&M’s website as of Friday.

It’s unclear who’s driving the apparent removal of H&M stores from mapping apps, which are operated by privately run enterprises that have recently come under increased scrutiny from regulators. China also has a vast apparatus for censoring online content and its so-called Great Firewall restricts access to websites and apps from global companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. Social media is policed, with posts about controversial topics blocked or restricted from view.

Foreign brands have, in recent years, had to contend with a more assertive China and its ability to mobilize its 1.4 billion consumers. Lotte Group was among a number of South Korean corporations that took a sales hit or had their stores shut down after China objected to its neighbor’s 2016 decision to deploy a U.S missile defense system. Other companies have also run afoul in the market for infractions like identifying Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries rather than Chinese territories, or for perceived insults to China.