As China’s Economy Recovers, Boycotts of Foreign Brands Are Back on the Table
Since China’s reopening, its consumers are increasingly likely to say they would be willing to boycott foreign companies over the next 12 months, with shares rising 21 percentage points between January and May 2023.
Willingness to boycott foreign goods had previously declined during a moment of public protest and political and economic uncertainty, highlighting the connection between boycotts of foreign goods and nationalist sentiment.
Despite growing instances of boycotts — often driven by geopolitical concerns and perceived insults against China — Chinese consumers are surprisingly forgiving. Overwhelming majorities said they would be willing to end boycotts if the offending companies took any of various actions that we outline below.
This implies that boycotts, while likely to increase in frequency, are largely performative and likely to be short-lived. Rattled foreign brands should stay the course and adopt the atonement strategies we present.
Chinese consumers said they would be most swayed to stop boycotting an offending brand if it were to declare outright support for China. Companies worried about the reputational cost of legitimizing problematic Chinese policies should opt to show their support in other ways, such as by making a large donation to a Chinese humanitarian organization.
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China’s powerful and prickly consumers
Over the last few years, the risk of boycotts has been top of mind for multinationals courting China’s prized but easily riled consumer market. China’s economic reforms in recent decades helped turbocharge globalization and led to an explosion of wealth for Chinese consumers, alongside growing access to and desire for coveted foreign brands and goods. But as the power of Chinese consumers has grown, their relationship with foreign brands has become more complex and fraught.
Regularly encouraged by state media, incidents of Chinese consumers boycotting foreign brands and goods have proliferated over the past decade as China’s relationship with the West has frayed and Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged his country to pursue greater economic self-reliance. According to our previous research, as of May 2023, 43% of Chinese adults — including 47% of the youngest generation — reported having boycotted a foreign brand previously. And their decisions to do so were often influenced by political concerns, especially the perception that a brand or its representatives had criticized the Chinese government.
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As China sank into an economic malaise under a series of strict lockdowns in 2022, talk of boycotts seemed to become less pronounced. However, as China now pursues a post-pandemic economic recovery against the backdrop of worsening relations with the West, we caution that the possibility of boycotts of foreign brands is firmly back on the table, driven by perceptions of political antagonism directed at China as well as other concerns.
The risk of boycotts has risen since China’s reopening
Our data affirms this post-COVID narrative. Since shortly after China reopened in January 2023, the share of Chinese who said they would be “somewhat” or “very” willing to boycott foreign brands in the next 12 months has risen 21 percentage points to 64%. The increase is especially striking when compared with the recent past: The share of consumers who say they are willing to boycott foreign brands in the future is 21 percentage points higher than the share who say they have done so in the past. The trend provides clear evidence of rising risks for foreign companies.
Chinese Consumers’ Willingness to Boycott Foreign Brands Has Risen Since China’s Reopening
Protests and uncertainty have likely dampened China’s enthusiasm for boycotts
On the whole, Chinese willingness to boycott foreign brands has risen 34 percentage points since we first began tracking this metric in July 2022. Sentiment at the time was likely depressed by a series of COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns in summer 2022 that hobbled the Chinese economy and dented economic nationalism. Likewise, the total increase in Chinese consumers’ collective appetite for foreign boycotts over the length of our data series includes a short-lived period between early November 2022 and early January 2023 when willingness to boycott foreign brands fell 14 percentage points.
These dates roughly bookend a window of several months when public frustration over China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies exploded into a series of national protests and plunged China into a moment of political and economic chaos. Sentiment then held steady through February as Beijing reversed course on its strict COVID-19 containment policies, leading to a wave of infections and further public frustration. Chinese consumers’ willingness to boycott foreign brands then began to climb, alongside rising tensions between China and the West that started with accusations over an errant spy balloon and continued through high-level meetings between U.S. officials and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
A fairly uniform predilection for boycotts
As of May, Chinese consumers’ willingness to boycott is fairly consistent across demographic splits. The largest discrepancy is between consumers with a college education — just 38% of whom say they would be willing to boycott a foreign brand in the next 12 months — and those without one (74%). College-educated Chinese are likely to be wealthier and more worldly, and to have greater purchasing power; they also have more exposure to foreign goods that are higher up the value chain. Given this finding, our view is that producers of cheaper goods are potentially more at risk of boycotts going forward.
What would drive future boycotts?
It is instructive to compare Chinese consumers’ motivations. All adults in our survey were asked to select reasons why they would be willing to boycott a foreign brand or good going forward. Additionally, the 43% of respondents who claimed to have previously boycotted foreign brands or goods were surveyed about their reasons for doing so; these findings are more extensively examined in our previous memo on the topic.
While shares are similar across many categories, it is important to keep in mind the differing samples. Data on past boycotts reflects the views of only the 43% of respondents who say they have previously boycotted a foreign brand. Thus, similar shares among that subsample and the overall sample imply an increased risk of boycotts going forward in an absolute sense.
Criticism of the Chinese Government Animates Both Past and Potential Future Boycotts
Criticism of China is top of mind for past and future boycotters
While respondents overall are only slightly more likely to say they would boycott a foreign brand in the future if it insulted the Chinese government (31%) compared with the share who would do so if a spokesperson for the brand gave offense (30%), those who had boycotted a foreign brand in the past were more likely to cite the latter as reason for their protest by a margin of 6 percentage points. As we noted in our companion memo, this highlights the risk of rogue brand ambassadors to multinationals operating in China.
Companies pursuing Chinese market share should take note: Sensitivity to criticism of China remains a top-line concern for consumers overall, and not just to the smaller subset of activist consumers who have engaged in boycotts previously.
Quick to anger but willing to forgive
Yet if multinationals feel like they need to walk on eggshells to succeed in the Chinese market, they should take heart that Chinese consumers are surprisingly forgiving. Presented with a list of 12 possible modes of redress foreign companies that spark consumer boycotts in China could take, large majorities of respondents said they would be somewhat or very likely to forgive the company and end their hypothetical boycott in each instance.
Angry consumers want an unambiguous show of support for China
The most popular option for placating aggrieved Chinese consumers was a show of support for their country. Nearly three-quarters of Chinese adults (73%) said they would be at least somewhat likely to forgive a company that atoned with a statement of support for China, including 34% who said they would be very likely to end any boycott in the face of such a declaration.
This would seem to confirm the extent to which consumer sensitivities in China are underpinned by ubiquitous official narratives about the country as perennially under siege from arrogant and disrespectful Western forces trying to contain China’s rise. This desire for a show of corporate support — which may be tantamount to validating or endorsing official Chinese government positions that are seen as problematic in the West — also conforms to Xi’s aim of “national rejuvenation,” part of which involves globally legitimizing a Chinese worldview.
Chinese Consumers Are Willing to End Boycotts if Companies Show Support for China
Forgiveness has its price, but some solutions are costlier than others
Walking back corporate criticism of Chinese government policies that are viewed as problematic in the West — such as forced labor in Xinjiang — could cause major reputational damage for multinationals that also do business outside China. But there may be other options: More than two-thirds of Chinese consumers (68%) said that they would be likely to forgive an offending brand if it made a donation to a Chinese humanitarian organization, with 34% saying such a donation would make them very likely to end a boycott — the same as the share who said that a generalized show of support would make them very likely to end a boycott.
The cost of such a donation is a far better value for international brands — compared with the potential cost of lost reputational capital — that are increasingly caught in an impossible situation between the conflicting worldviews of Chinese and Western consumers. We therefore advise foreign brands operating in China to build up public goodwill by leaning into frequent donations to Chinese humanitarian causes as part of a proactive boycott mitigation strategy.
Meanwhile, it is worth noting that the least workable strategy for earning Chinese consumers’ forgiveness is to have an offending spokesperson apologize via social media. When it comes to rogue brand ambassadors, Chinese consumers are more punitive, preferring that companies fire or cut ties with them altogether as a show of sincerity, which they also deemed more effective than similar apologies made via traditional media.
Foreign brands may feel rattled by boycotts but should stay the course
Navigating the minefield of Chinese consumer sensitivities is no easy task for foreign brands, and one that will only become more difficult as geopolitical tensions between China and the West continue to rise, as we predict they will. Yet foreign brands worried about Chinese consumer activism should be encouraged that events such as boycotts are often short-lived and largely performative.
As much as the Chinese government benefits from individual instances of consumer outrage that stoke nationalism and reinforce consumer-level solidarity with the central government, the wholesale exit of foreign brands from the Chinese market would be disastrous for a government whose legitimacy is predicated on the promise of delivering a quality of life to its citizens commensurate with that found in developed Western economies. As such, Chinese authorities are ultimately just as likely to use the country’s highly curated media ecosystem to shift narratives away from specific boycotts as they are to foment them. Companies with long-term goals in China that find themselves on the receiving end of such movements should take heart — and a page from our playbook of strategies for seeking forgiveness — and weather the storm.
Scott Moskowitz is senior analyst for the Asia-Pacific region at Morning Consult, where he leads geopolitical analysis of China and broader regional issues. Scott holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and has years of experience working in and conducting Mandarin-language research on China, with an emphasis on the politics of economic development and consumerism. Follow him on Twitter @ScottyMoskowitz. Interested in connecting with Scott to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].