Berlin (CNSNews.com) – The German government on Tuesday condemned China’s mass internment of its Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang following leaked documents describing “Orwellian” surveillance and forced labor, but downplayed Germany’s economic ties to the region.
“We have reminded China of its international human rights obligations,” the government’s human rights commissioner Bärbel Kofler said in a statement. “China must now take clear steps to immediately and sustainably improve the human rights situation in Xinjiang.”
Germany’s federal parliament wants Beijing to grant the U.N. human rights commissioner unrestricted access to its “reeducation” facilities in the far-western province, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert.
The statements come in response to leaked documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which reveal China’s surveillance and internment of up to one million Uighurs and other minority Muslims – which the ICIJ called “the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II.”
However, when asked Monday about German companies’ involvement in the Xinjiang region, Seibert said simply that companies were free to operate in the region as there are no sanctions preventing them from doing so.
China is Germany’s most important trading partner, with trade between the two nations of almost 200 billion euros ($220 billion) last year, according to the Federation of German Industries.
Large German companies doing business in Xinjiang through local operations or supply chains include Siemens, Volkswagen, BASF, and Adidas.
The U.S. imposed economic sanctions on China in October in connection with human rights violations in Xinjiang, blacklisting 28 Chinese companies. It also warned Germany it could scale back the sharing of sensitive information, because Berlin is ignoring U.S. calls not to allow Chinese tech firm Huawei to build its new high-speed mobile networks in Germany.
Of the large German companies involved in the region, only sporting goods producer Adidas has acknowledged the possibility of abuse. A Chinese manufacturer who supplies a sub-supplier of Adidas has been accused of forced labor in Xinjiang. Adidas agreed it would not sign any new contracts with the manufacturer until it has investigated the claims.
The Munich-based tech company Siemens defended criticism of its ties to China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-run firm which in part developed the Integrated Joint Operation Platform, used to monitor Uighurs’ movements.
A Siemens spokesperson said its “strategic cooperation” with CETC did not include the supply of any “end product,” adding that its operations were in line with its code of conduct and did not breach U.N. “guiding principles” on business and human rights.
Asked whether Siemens would reevaluate its business ties to CETC, its spokesperson said only that the company was “following the situation very closely.”
Automaker Volkswagen and chemical company BASF similarly defended their operations in the Xinjiang region. (VW has a car plant in the area in a joint venture with state-owned Chinese vehicle manufacturer SAIC, while BASF operates two joint ventures with Chinese companies in Xinjiang.)
A BASF spokesperson said the company was aware of “social problems” in Xinjiang but ruled out any possibility of its workers working under duress. “BASF does not tolerate any form of child labor, forced labor, slavery or trafficking worldwide.”
“All our employees work without compulsion,” a Volkswagen corporate spokesperson told German outlets, adding that it stands by its responsibility to uphold human rights “in all business areas that we can directly control.”
Ulrich Delius, head of the German Society for Threatened Peoples, criticized the response. “VW say they are upholding human rights worldwide, yet we do not see them doing so in China,” he said.
Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the NGO Victims of Communism rejected the argument that Germany companies could not be held accountable on the basis that no forced labor could be directly proven.
Chinese factories are partly built in the same area as the reeducation camps, with Uighurs being forced to work after being released, Zenz told Süddeutsche Zeitung. As such, any foreign company active in the region indirectly supports the “inhumane surveillance state” and must ask itself whether its operations are compatible with Western values, he said.