In April, Jewish World Watch, the American Alliance for Automotive Corporate Social Responsibility, and 17 other human rights organizations took part in the Uyghur Week of Action and the affiliated Global Day of Business Engagement to push our message that Volkswagen must close its factory located in Xinjiang, China, and stop using Uyghur forced labor once and for all. Founded by the Nazi Party in 1937, Volkswagen is once again using forced labor to make a profit and curry political favors. It is a situation that has yet to prove as uncomfortable as it should for the car company.
American consumers can help shake those who provide aid and comfort to the Chinese Communist Party in its genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs. Consumers can and should demand products, goods, and services that are not providing aid and comfort to those complicit in genocide.
Instead of making amends for its past record of human rights abuses, Volkswagen’s leadership is repeating the past and doing so in a spectacular fashion. In a recently released report, The People v. The People’s Car, the American Alliance for Automotive Corporate Social Responsibility provides context as to why Volkswagen’s Xinjiang plant is not a fluke.
In the United States, Volkswagen is perhaps most noted in recent years for the malfeasance around the “defeat device” the manufacturer placed in diesel cars that tricked emissions tests into showing the cars polluting far less than they were in reality. The result was a recall of a half-million diesel vehicles in the U.S. as part of a $14.7 million settlement.
There are darker episodes in Volkswagen’s past that mirror the company’s role in Xinjiang today. In Brazil, the firm was complicit in providing aid and comfort to the country’s military dictatorship lasting from 1964-1985. Volkswagen was forced to pay out more than $6 million in compensation and donations last year after a dozen union activists, termed “subversives” by the dictatorship that also happened to be on the company payroll, were identified and handed over to the military government for beatings and torture by the company.
Volkswagen’s Urumqi plant is not profitable; that is not the point. However, for the Chinese Communist Party, the plant is significant. It is a showpiece of the Potemkin facade the Chinese state authorities have sought to erect to display all the non-genocide-related activities the one-party state is involved in within Xinjiang.
Perhaps more remarkably, the Chinese Communist Party believes a car plant operating at less than half capacity, “employing” 600 forced laborers, and churning out 20,000 cars annually can distract people from the genocide taking place. Why would Volkswagen want to be complicit in such crimes that hearken back to the darkest abscess of the automaker’s past?
For Jewish World Watch, the horror stories coming out of the region are eerily familiar to Jews’ own experiences in pre-World War II Europe. Volkswagen’s current contractual obligation complies with China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law. This contract requires Volkswagen to “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work,” whose agencies facilitate the arrest, interrogation, and internment of Uyghurs in concentration camps through the routine use of advanced digital and biometric surveillance, including facial, voice, and DNA recognition. These terms echo its history under another totalitarian regime.
Unlike other major brands that have sought to distance themselves from the conditions of forced labor and ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, Volkswagen has not.
Executives at Volkswagen may be more familiar with China’s policy in Xinjiang by the nomenclature preferred by the Chinese Communist Party, namely “Xinjiang Aid.” It is a fancy term for a broad assault on the human rights of a targeted people, the Uyghurs, who are incarcerated en masse, targeted for “re-education,” placed under a surveillance state system that dehumanizes, brutalizes, and assaults the dignity of Uyghurs caught in its dragnet. It is also the Chinese Communist Party’s system of “industrial aid.”
In other words, for a company to do business in Xinjiang, it has an understanding with the Chinese Communist Party that in exchange for complicity and silence regarding the most egregious crimes happening within China’s borders, the opportunity for business is wide open. For Volkswagen, China’s mass reeducation centers for Uyghur hostages are just the price of doing business.
It is a price that consumers should be unwilling to pay because it is the price of human dignity. Join our call to action. Hold Volkswagen accountable, and demand that the companies you buy from adhere to universal values such as human rights, labor rights, fair treatment of suppliers, and equal pay for equal work. Volkswagen can no longer remain complicit in the genocide against the Uyghurs taking place in western China.
Serena Oberstein is the executive director of the Jewish World Watch. Meto Koloski serves on the advisory board of the American Alliance for Automotive Corporate Social Responsibility.