Corporate Complicity in China’s Genocide: Where US Brands Go from Here

CSPS Fellow Noah Zoroya discusses the importance of cause marketing and government regulations in response to the Uighur genocide ongoing in China.

Genocides happen in silence. In 1975, Cambodia fell into a full media blackout as the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh. News to the outside world came to a halt and Pol Pot’s murderous regime tightened its grip. Over the next four years, nearly two million Cambodians perished. Except for rumors and scattered refugee reports, the rest of the world was oblivious. Today, a new genocide is underway against the Uighurs—a Muslim minority that resides in China’s Northwest Xinjiang Province. US companies with supply chains in China face a choice: turn a blind eye to genocide and the Uighur forced labor within their supply chains or comply with new US regulation that targets products of forced labor. Despite this humanitarian crisis and economic chaos, US firms have the chance to bolster their brands and, most critically, help address China’s genocide: adopt a save-the-Uighurs cause marketing campaign.

Why Cause Marketing?

Cause marketing is a branding strategy where companies seek to align their products behind furthering a social good. American Express donated money to restore the Statue of Liberty. Coca-Cola pledged to save the polar bears. These efforts educate the public on social issues and cultivate an emotional connection between brand and consumer. Historically, firms avoided championing polarizing topics from fear of offending customers. Times have changed. Today, a new wave of conscientious consumers is not just open to cause-driven branding—they expect it.

Though a newer strategy, it is often the marketing campaigns that have something to lose that see the most gains. Nike offers a textbook example. The sportswear behemoth gambled on signing Colin Kaepernick—the former 49er blackballed by the NFL over his stance on police brutality—to serve as the face of its 2018 marketing campaign. To most marketing teams Kaepernick might have seemed toxic, but Nike’s gamble paid off. In the short term, Nike saw an increase in sales. In the long term, following protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Nike’s credibility and reputation among consumers continues to grow. Many other brands have jumped aboard the Black Lives Matter train. Racial injustice, undoubtably a polarizing topic, served Nike well. Brands should not be averse to controversy.

The growing body of data shows how cause marketing is building better brands: The Deloitte Insights 2020 global marketing report found that purpose-driven brands on average grow three-times faster than non-purpose driven competitors. In its 2017 study, the Kantar Group, a London-based market research firm, found that 79 percent of US millennials believe companies should take a stand on social issues. The next generation of consumers are hungry to spend their dollars for good. Of course, there’s the risk of alienating consumers or offending shareholders. Tim Ryan, US Chairman of consulting powerhouse PricewaterhouseCooper, noted that “there is always a risk. . . but the flip side of that—the bigger risk—is you don’t adapt to the opportunities out there, to innovate. . . or to attract a different kind of customer.”

Upon ridding supply chains of forced labor—as mandated by recent and coming US regulation—firms should market their products “genocide free.” To take their credibility one step further, firms can donate a portion of the profits to an organization like the Save Uighur Campaign, an NGO that seeks to provoke government action.   

In doing so, the biggest risk is China’s response. In the past, China punished companies over seemingly innocuous transgressions. For example, in 2018, Marriott’s website listed Tibet and Taiwan as sovereign nations. China blocked access to its website until Marriott changed the listing.  Any new violator may land on China’s blacklist, created in the midst of its US trade war. Also, firms could end up in Chinese court. China released a set of rules that holds multinational firms legally responsible for Chinese losses resulting from US restrictions. Brand-based criticism of China is uncharted territory, but that immense risk raises a brands credibility in the eyes of consumers.

Why now?

Cambodia’s genocide happened in silence, but just over a decade later when Slobodan Milošević led a genocide against Bosnian Muslims—the world watched in horror. Blanket media coverage made clear every aspect of suffering. The American public was horrified. The American demand for action was deafening. Everyday citizens called on representatives, bureaucrats resigned in disgust over US inaction and politicians of both parties decried first a Republican then a Democratic president. From a landing strip in Sarajevo, Senator Joe Biden condemned the international community’s weak response, stating “collective security means arranging to blame one another for inaction, so that everyone has an excuse. It does not mean standing together; it means hiding together.”

To address genocide, there must be a critical mass of concerned constituents. Lawmakers are more likely to act—even on far away matters of foreign policy—when the American public is made to care. This is where brands can make an impact. A cause marketing campaign can educate and inform. It spreads the word that genocide is happening right now and compels Americans to demand government action. Thus far, the US has levelled trade restrictions and called China’s crimes for what they are—genocide. However, many policy options remain unused.

The President can call on allies to level further trade restrictions against China. Australia and the UK have explored sanctions and twelve Japanese companies ceased business with complicit Chinese firms after public pressure, but the EUremains a huge importer of Xinjiang goods. The United States can threaten to pull out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics unless China ceases its assault on the Uighurs. China cares deeply about its public image. Losing face on such a stage would send a clear message that resonates. Companies, through adept branding, can elevate issues to the forefront of the public discourse. They have the power to further a critical conversation.

The clock is ticking. Every multinational firm has overlooked the Uighurs. This is an important opportunity for proactive firms to set their products apart from the pack by addressing a crisis and building a better brand. Two birds, one cause-driven stone. The moment is theirs for the taking.

Noah Zoroya Noah is a full-time graduate student in international security. His primary research interest is great power competition. He graduated with a BA in history from the University of Mary Washington in 2018 and received his certificate of French language and culture from Aix-Marseille University in 2020. In his free time Noah enjoys mixology and playing with his dog, Pig.

Photo can be found here.