German companies do business in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang despite the human rights violations taking place there. According to experts, they may have benefited from forced labor and oppression.
Behind the cumbersome name "integration platform for joint operations" hides one of the most sophisticated technical tools of repression in the world: a database run by the Chinese central government that monitors Muslims living in the autonomous region of Xinjiang – most of them belong to the Uighur minority.
The "integration platform" is voracious: The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch recently reported what government officials feed in: interpersonal relationships, movement profiles of smartphones and car license plates, information about power consumption, when and where someone has filled up – even whether the person owns the vehicle was or not. With dozens of data points, everyone is classified.
"Integration platform" set up by Siemens partners
The technical structure of the "integration platform" database is the Chinese, semi-state conglomerate CETC. The company is an important technology partner of the German company Siemens. When asked whether Siemens does not see an ethical conflict in doing business with a key company under this state surveillance, the NDR, WDR and "Suddeutscher Zeitung" (SZ) group replied that they do not see any adverse human rights effects in the sense of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights ". The "strategic cooperation" is in accordance with the Siemens code of conduct. In addition, Siemens technology is only installed in production systems and not in CETC end products.
Volkswagen increases commitment in Xinjiang
Siemens is not the only German corporation that does business in the region or with companies active there, despite the ongoing and well-documented human rights violations in Xinjiang. In 2013, Volkswagen opened a car factory in the city of Urumqi, which is operated in a joint venture with the state-owned Chinese vehicle manufacturer SAIC.
When asked, Volkswagen said it was assuming that Xinjiang would continue to develop economically and was therefore "expanding its commitment in the region". A vehicle test track was only inaugurated this year. An SUV model will also be produced in Urumqi from next year.
In this context, Chinese press articles say that Volkswagen has also signed a cooperation agreement with the armed people’s police on site. Among other things, this stipulates that a police unit should conduct military and patriotic training for employees.
Group denies cooperation with the military
A group spokesman told NDR, WDR and SZ that the group stood by its responsibility to uphold human rights "in all business areas that we can directly control". It also said that it could be ruled out that employees in Urumqi would work under duress. The VW plant aims to improve the social environment "on site. Military training for VW employees" did not and does not exist, "the spokesman continued.
Expert: Firms may support surveillance state
China expert Adrian Zenz said in an interview with NDR, WDR and SZ that from his point of view at least part of the Inmates of the internment camp used as labor against their will after being dismissed. The China Cables also suggest this suspicion. "Some of the factory buildings are in the same area as the re-education camps," says Zenz. The government is building the internment camps "with foresight in industrial parks and areas" so that the forced laborers do not have to travel far, according to the scientist.
Even if "forced labor cannot necessarily be proven in one’s own local workforce", no foreign company can be active in the region "without this inhuman surveillance state being supported in any way." Anyone who is economically active in the region as a foreign company must ask themselves whether this commitment can be reconciled with Western values, said Zenz.
USA imposed sanctions
The US imposed numerous economic sanctions in October related to ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang. Among other things, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted 28 companies that are no longer allowed to purchase goods or components from the USA. The companies are said to be involved in the suppression of the religious minorities in Xinjiang.
The US has also sanctioned the Hikvision company. The group produces surveillance cameras, among other things. According to an Internet blog, Hikvision has developed a camera that uses artificial intelligence to distinguish whether a Uyghur or a Han Chinese is in the field of view. The most important shareholder of Hikvision is the Siemens partner company CETC. When asked whether Siemens was also working with Hikvision, the company did not answer.
BASF and KfW active in Xinjiang
The chemical company BASF operates two so-called joint ventures, i.e. joint economic operations, with Chinese companies in Xinjiang. The company is "aware of the social problems in the Xinjiang area," said a spokesman when asked. But one can rule out that employees are forced to work there. "BASF does not tolerate any form of child or forced labor, slavery or human trafficking anywhere in the world." This also applies to the plants in Xinjiang, said a spokesman.
The state development bank KfW is also active in the region: Among other things, it granted a loan of 100 million euros in 2016 for the construction of a metro line in Urumqi. The example shows how difficult it is to get involved economically in the region. According to press reports, passengers must register with their full names before starting their journey. The suspicion arises that the data collected in this way are also used to monitor the population.
A spokeswoman for KfW said that this process is not known. The aim of the measure was to promote development and improve living conditions on site.
Adidas stops orders
When asked, the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas confirmed that a Chinese company that is accused of profiting from forced labor in Xinjiang has manufactured products for an Adidas sub-supplier. A spokesman for Adidas said they were taking the allegations "very seriously" and were currently investigating them on site. "Our direct suppliers are obliged to pass our standards on to their subcontractors," said the spokesman. In addition, the supplier had been instructed not to place any more orders with the company concerned until clarification.