VW touts electric cars at China show, faces questions about Uighurs

FILED - Raindrops bead on a Volkswagen logo at a VW dealer in the northern German city of Hanover in the file shot from January 12, 2021. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa
FILED - Raindrops bead on a Volkswagen logo at a VW dealer in the northern German city of Hanover in the file shot from January 12, 2021. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa

Volkswagen is pushing its new all-electric cars at a major car show in China while also facing questions about its involvement in the region of Xinjiang amid allegations of widespread persecution and discrimination against the Uighur minority there.

The German carmaking giant’s head of operations in China, Stephan Woelleinstein, told journalists in Shanghai on Sunday that a group code of conduct applies to the Volkswagen plant in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, as it does to all other sites and also their suppliers in China.

“A topic like forced labour, which is critically discussed, cannot exist at our plant because we employ people directly,” he said on Sunday.

Furthermore, “diversity” is implemented, which also addresses the employment of ethnic minorities “without any form of discrimination”, Woellenstein said before the start of the 2021 Auto Shanghai show on Monday.

He noted a “clear tightening of the political climate” in the world. It is also a fact that China’s reputation is suffering, he said. “That it will also be critical of us at some point is certainly something we cannot dismiss out of hand,” Woellenstein said.

“We made it clear that we have to stick to our China engagement in total and we will also stick to our Xinjiang engagement as long as we believe it is a feasible one from the economic perspective.”

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang have been put into re-education camps. China rejects the accusations and speaks instead of training centres. There are also increasing accusations of possible forced labour.

Uighurs are ethnically related to Turks and feel oppressed in Xinjiang by the ruling Han Chinese. After taking power in Beijing in 1949, the communists incorporated the former East Turkestan into the people’s republic. Beijing accuses Uighur groups of terrorism and separatism.

Turning to the subject of business prospects within China, Volkswagen hopes its share of the country’s market for cars with alternative engines can soon reach about 15 per cent, equivalent to the share it currently enjoys in sales of standard petrol-driven vehicles.

“Volkswagen has a solid history of arriving somewhat later, but with that much more heft,” Woellenstein said on Sunday.

Volkswagen has recently announced massive plans to shift away from combustion engines and into cars powered by electricity and other forms of power. Companies like Tesla have a major head start, but VW has vowed to catch up. That will be critical in China, the world’s largest car market.

At the show, VW presented the ID.6 X and the Crozz, a pair of battery-powered sport utility vehicles that will only be produced in China.

VW’s share of China’s electric car market stands at about 3-4 per cent right now, but Woellenstein says it has a “good chance” of reaching double digits this year. The goal is to sell more than 100,000 electric cars in China this year, he said.

Woellenstein says his company is not so much focused on market share as on pushing the technology of electric cars further. To that end, VW is set to invest 15 billion euros (18 billion dollars) into the technology in China in the next four years.

“We’ll need two to three years to get in front of Tesla,” he said.

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