China's Volkswagen employees know first-hand that trips to Xinjiang can come back to the visitor like a boomerang.

Hendrik Ankenbrand

Business correspondent for China based in Shanghai.

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Christian Müßgens

Business correspondent in Hamburg.

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At the end of November, for example, ten people died in a high-rise fire in the capital Urumqi, where the German company has one of 33 plants. China's Internet users not only blamed local cadres for the fact that the fire brigade could not extinguish quickly enough due to lockdowns in the corona lockdown. In their anger, citizens in cities like Shanghai took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

Xi had visited in the summer in the capital of Xinjiang a residential complex, which looked confusingly similar to the later scene of the accident. And he had his zero-Covid policy enforced even harder in the Muslim region than in the rest of the country.

No wonder, then, that during his visit to China in early February, VW CEO Oliver Blume felt little desire to visit the location that threatens to become a problem for VW that could hit business harder in the long run than software chaos and stale electric car models.

The boss inspected four VW plants in China, where his group sells four out of ten cars. After Urumqi in Xinjiang, whose predecessor Herbert Diess wanted to pay his respects personally, Blume sends a subordinate.

China Board on a secret trip

According to VW, China board member Ralf Brandstätter is to travel to Xinjiang in these weeks. When exactly, with whom – everything is secret. Journalists are on the journey 2500 kilometers from Beijing to the West just as little as Wolfsburg works councils. In the summer, Jörg Hofmann, deputy chairman of the VW supervisory board, head of IG Metall in his main function, stated in an interview that there was "little doubt" that human rights violations were taking place in Xinjiang. Even if there is currently no indication that VW employs Uighur forced laborers at its plant, the question arises "what it means for the reputation of the company to continue to be invested there."

VW boss Blume, on the other hand, wrote a letter in October to the World Uyghur Congress, an association of the Muslim minority of the Uyghurs: He was convinced that the plant was "positive for the people" in the region. With this opinion, Germany's most powerful car manager is increasingly alone.

Not only that, with regard to the plant in Xinjiang, the Federal Ministry of Economics refuses public guarantees for VW's investments in China and wants to divert state aid to other countries in order to force the companies out of the People's Republic. In this way, the German government wants to prevent the Chinese-dependent German economy from faring even worse in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan than with Russia after Putin's attack on Ukraine.

"Serious human rights violations"

Above all, however, parts of the FDP, but especially the Greens, no longer want to stand idly by and watch the widely documented persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. After all, according to a report published in the autumn by the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, it is now official that there were "serious human rights violations" in Xinjiang that "could constitute crimes against humanity".

How quickly the topic boils up, showed recently the discussion about a study by the British Sheffield Hallam University. Their scientists painstakingly worked out how strongly the economy in Xinjiang is interwoven with the local system of forced labor and the re-education camps declared as "centers for vocational qualification and training". As a result of the report, the US Senate has taken action. Ron Wyden, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, called on major automakers to comment on possible forced labor in their supply chains in China, a delicate process in the tense relationship between the two major powers.