What Drives Chinese Consumer Boycotts of Foreign Brands?

As China reopens and geopolitical tensions rise, multinationals that fail to understand Chinese consumer activism face pronounced risks
Unsplash / Morning Consult artwork by Ashley Berry and Kelly Rice
June 15, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • As China reopens, multinational brands looking to rekindle their fraught love affair with the Chinese consumer should actively devise boycott mitigation strategies given an increasingly polarized geopolitical environment, high incidence of boycotts and evidence of a strong link between the two.

  • As of May, a substantial share of Chinese consumers (43%) report having boycotted a foreign brand or company, rising to 47% among China’s youngest generation of adults.

  • General concerns about unethical behavior top the list of reasons for past boycotts, followed by sensitivity to criticism of China — especially from rogue brand ambassadors — while labor concerns and environmental trespasses resonate less.

  • Facing historic unemployment, younger Chinese are more likely to characterize their boycotts as driven by economic nationalism.

  • Ironically, moving supply chains out of China may help foreign companies sidestep impossible situations that have animated past boycotts and avoid angering both Chinese and Western consumers. We advise companies to carefully consider the trade-off based on an understanding of both sets of consumers and to strategize accordingly.

Visit our Global Corporate Purpose Tracker to learn more about consumers’ expectations surrounding corporate activism and global trust in business.

As China’s economic clout has grown over the last few decades, its vast consumer market has become a highly sought-after revenue source. Chinese consumers’ growing desirability among foreign brands, meanwhile, has coincided with growing confidence and assertiveness that have been regularly flexed through boycotts. The phenomenon has increased significantly in the last decade and has often been linked to geopolitical tensions, in line with our research showing that many Chinese consumers would retaliate against foreign brands for perceived transgressions against their home country, as they have often done in the past.

Since coming to power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has cultivated an increasingly chauvinistic discourse around Chinese national interests and sovereignty while seeking to lessen the country’s reliance on foreign consumption. Likewise, China’s state-controlled media have routinely promoted and amplified various boycott movements via the country’s strategically curated social media ecosystem. While talk of boycotts seemed to cool as China’s economy sank into the malaise of recurring COVID-19 lockdowns from March 2020 onward, China’s recent reopening and hopeful economic recovery have renewed foreign brands’ interest in its consumer market.

As China’s consumers get back on their feet amid an increasingly tense geopolitical environment, we advise foreign brands to once again consider the possibility of boycotts and devise mitigation strategies with geopolitical tensions in mind.

A predilection for consumer protest

Indeed, 43% of Chinese adults report having previously boycotted a foreign brand, with the country’s youngest generation of adult consumers being the most likely to say they have done so (47%).

Urban residents (44%) are also more likely than nonurban ones (37%) to say they have participated in boycotts of foreign brands. This makes sense given urban residents’ comparative wealth — and thus their enhanced ability to make purchasing decisions driven by concerns beyond cost — as well as their access to a greater diversity of consumer goods, especially those of foreign brands. Research has also shown that boycotts are typically most effective in competitive markets with greater consumer choice.

Younger Adults Are Most Likely to Report Having Boycotted Foreign Brands

Shares of respondents who say they have boycotted a foreign brand or company
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Survey conducted May 4-6, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,001 Chinese adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Ethical concerns and criticism of China drive boycotts

Respondents who reported boycotting a foreign brand were most likely to cite generalized unethical behavior (33%) — a catchall category that may include perceived prejudice against Chinese consumers — when asked why they had done so. Geopolitically relevant concerns were next on the list, but with one noteworthy distinction: 32% said they had boycotted a brand whose spokesperson criticized the Chinese government, compared with just 26% who cited the brand itself as responsible for such criticism.

We advise foreign brands with Chinese ambitions to be especially careful of their spokespeople in light of this finding, while recognizing that many companies are caught in an impossible situation: Outspoken brand ambassadors can get Western multinationals in hot water with Chinese consumers, yet censoring these same representatives could lead to backlash among consumers at home. Companion research by our EMEA team provides guidance for U.S. companies concerned about straddling this line.

Specific demographics at scale: Surveying thousands of consumers around the world every day powers our ability to examine and analyze perceptions and habits of more specific demographics at scale, like those featured here.

Why it matters: Leaders need a better understanding of their audiences when making key decisions. Our comprehensive approach to understanding audience profiles complements the “who” of demographics and the “what” of behavioral data with critical insights and analysis on the “why.”

Nearly 3 in 10 Chinese adults also cited a preference for local brands over foreign ones as having driven their boycott decisions. The category potentially accounts for instances where boycotts were driven more generally by consumers’ desire to punish foreign countries for perceived geopolitical missteps — retaliating against brands closely linked to the offending nations, as in the cases of Japan, France and others — rather than a desire to punish a foreign brand or company for its individual actions.

Companies worried about being caught in the geopolitical crossfire should keep a close eye on evolving tensions and take a strategic approach to crafting and presenting their brand identity in China. Historically, close associations between specific companies and their countries of origin have been beneficial from a branding perspective — consider, for example, Chinese consumers’ associations of Europe with luxury products, or New Zealand with a clean environment and high-quality meat. Increasingly, our view is that these perceived links can open brands up to greater risk as geopolitical tensions continue to rise. For many multinationals, crafting a more generic global identity that downplays ties to a specific country of origin will be the safer option, albeit at the risk of diluting brand identity.

Labor and environmental concerns are not top of mind for Chinese boycotters

Relative to the drivers of boycotts discussed above, consumers’ concerns about data privacy and labor conditions were lower on the list, with environmental issues ranking last (18%) among boycotting adults overall. While Chinese consumers have exhibited a growing demand for sustainable products and conscientious brands, our data suggests environmental mismanagement is less likely to spark outrage relative to other issues. We view this finding as a natural outcome of the role that Chinese state media plays in cultivating and sustaining public outrage, primarily over issues that dovetail with Communist Party priorities and buoy nationalism, hence geopolitical events’ widespread resonance as drivers of boycotts. Likewise, such official narratives tend to downplay issues that could reflect poorly on the state, such as lax environmental regulation; as such, these issues are less likely to drive boycotts.

Ethics, Geopolitics and Economic Nationalism Are Top Reasons for Chinese Consumer Boycotts

Respondents who have boycotted foreign brands or companies identified their reasons for doing so
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Survey conducted May 4-6, 2023, among a sample of 427 Chinese adults who said they had boycotted a foreign brand, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points.

Employment frustrations and economic nationalism drive boycotts among younger consumers

Western companies that are especially reliant on China’s younger generations to drive revenue should tread especially carefully on this front. Young consumers were much more likely to characterize their boycotts as driven by economic nationalism and domestic labor concerns: 29% cited frustrations over foreign brands outcompeting Chinese rivals and suppressing domestic labor demand, while 27% said their boycotts had been spurred by a desire to support Chinese companies over foreign rivals. Among Gen Z adults, concern about these issues ranked second and third after generalized ethical concerns, outpacing anger over companies’ specific criticism of the Chinese government. The finding that employment concerns are top of mind for this group makes sense given historic unemployment levels among young Chinese. Likewise, while 22% said they had boycotted foreign brands over concerns about their treatment of domestic workers, just 12% reported doing so over similar concerns for workers outside of China.

And while strident nationalism has often animated young Chinese adults in the past, recent domestic protests against government policies — in which younger generations were particularly active — may have led many to rethink or downplay the role that resenting criticism of the government played in their past boycotts. This could explain the outsize share of Gen Z adults who said they were uncertain about the reasons for their previous boycotts (14%) relative to Chinese adults overall (just 4%).

Foreign brands are caught in the middle

Rogue ambassadors aside, foreign brands have often been caught between disparate international and Chinese perspectives on geopolitics, especially over what amounts to sensitive Chinese domestic policies. Foreign brands seeking to gain market share in the world’s largest country have always been subject to China’s stringent business regulations and sensitive political environment, as well as the whims of its increasingly outspoken consumer base. As geopolitical tensions heat up, the middle path between the two sides has become increasingly difficult to navigate. Those seen as kowtowing to Chinese consumer demands may increasingly face blowback from non-Chinese consumers. And regulations constraining foreign companies’ abilities to operate in China are no longer being driven by Beijing alone, potentially forcing these companies into situations that may spark outrage among Chinese consumers.

Why decoupling supply chains could benefit foreign brands still courting Chinese consumers

Somewhat ironically, the growing incentives that many multinationals face to decouple from China amid persistent geopolitical headwinds may actually obviate some of the biggest potential pitfalls for those still courting Chinese consumers and worried about a resurgence of boycotts. Moving supply chains out of China may help these brands sidestep some of the thorny geopolitical issues that have led to previous boycotts, especially concerns about ethical sourcing and forced labor. This, of course, will not please young Chinese already frustrated with diminishing employment opportunities in their country. But it will at least mean fewer opportunities for foreign companies to stumble over issues that could potentially enrage average Chinese consumers.

As China’s consumer market revs up once again, Western companies hoping to profit from a recovery will need to tread lightly in an increasingly polarized and politically fraught global consumer environment. While shifting production out of China may still lead to blowback among Chinese consumers, it may ultimately lessen foreign brands’ exposure to impossible quagmires of competing consumer demands. We advise companies to carefully consider the trade-off based on an understanding of both their Chinese and home country consumers, and to pick their battles accordingly.

A headshot photograph of Scott Moskowitz
Scott Moskowitz
Senior Analyst, APAC

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].

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