BEIJING (AP) — An audit commissioned by Volkswagen has found no indication of forced labor at its plant in China’s Xinjiang region, where Western governments have accused the Chinese government of human rights violations against the Uyghur ethnic minority.
The German automaker has come under fire for operating in Xinjiang, a remote western region that borders Central Asia. The U.S. government has blocked imports from Xinjiang unless it can be proven that the products were not made with forced labor.
The auditor, Loening — Human Rights and Responsible Business, conducted 40 interviews and was able to inspect the factory freely, said Markus Loening, a former German human rights commissioner who founded the consultancy.
“We could not find any indications or evidence of forced labor among the employees,” he said in remarks provided by Volkswagen from a media briefing in Germany on Tuesday.
China launched a harsh crackdown in Xinjiang around 2017 in response to a series of bombings, knifings and other attacks by Uyghurs unhappy with the communist-ruled government’s policies toward their ethnic group. Analysts estimate that a million or more people have been detained in what China has called vocational training and education centers.
The government denies any human rights violations and says the measures successfully eliminated a terrorist threat.
Jim Wormington, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday that the risk of reprisals against auditors and workers in Xinjiang means that “no audit can credibly claim to have investigated labor conditions at factories in the region.”
He added that the summary of the audit provided by Volkswagen made it difficult to assess its methodology and findings. The automaker did not release the full report.
Adrian Zenz, a scholar who has studied the forced labor issue in Xinjiang extensively, said on Wednesday that new evidence from Xinjiang police files showed that Uyghurs were sent from re-education camps directly to vocational institutions that organized job fairs with Volkswagen as a typical work destination.
“The ramification is that re-educated and coerced Uyghurs can likely end up working for larger companies such as FAW-Volkswagen in Xinjiang,” said Zenz, China director and senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. “This risk cannot be ascertained through audits, since Uyghurs are not free to speak about camp or re-education experiences, or about other coercive and repressive state measures in their lives.”
Loening acknowledged the difficulty of conducting audits in China. “The situation in China and Xinjiang and the challenges in collecting data for audits are well known,” he said.
The Volkswagen plant in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is no longer assembling vehicles and functions only as a distribution hub. About 10,000 vehicles a year undergo quality checks before they are delivered to dealers in the region.
The number of workers has fallen to 197 from about 650 between 2015 and 2019, Volkswagen said. Of the total, 47 are Uyghurs and 150 are from China’s Han majority.
“The employees are paid above average and have little to do,” Loening said.
A law firm in Shenzhen, an industrial hub in eastern China, carried out the audit, accompanied by staff from Loening. The factory is owned by Volkswagen’s joint venture with SAIC Motor, a major Chinese automaker.
Human Rights Watch called on European Union leaders this week to press China on human rights during a summit with China’s leaders in Beijing on Thursday.
They should “make clear to President Xi Jinping that there can be no business as usual if pervasive repression continues across the country,” said Philippe Dam, the EU director at Human Rights Watch.
EU officials have said that human rights will be raised at Thursday’s meetings but that they expect a tough rebuttal from China. The Chinese government regards criticism of its human rights record as interference in its domestic affairs.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi telegraphed that position in a speech this week to a symposium on human rights in Beijing.
“We must reject any attempt to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or contain their development under the pretext of human rights,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech.
The Chinese government sees economic development as a foundation for human rights and has ensured “the rights to subsistence” for its people, he said.
“There is not a single model of human rights development,” Wang said, adding that “we must oppose any attempt to force one’s own values and model upon others.”
Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.