Volkswagen defends presence in China amid outcry over Beijing’s Uighur abuses

German auto giant Volkswagen (VW) is defending its presence in China’s Xinjiang region, where evidence of human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority has created an international outcry, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.

The company’s 2012 decision to open the Urumqi facility was "based purely on economics," and it is looking to "further economic growth in the region over the coming years," Volkswagen told Deutsche Welle. 

Volkswagen’s statements follow recently leaked documents confirming the mass surveillance, incarceration and systematic brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a network of high-security prison camps run by the Chinese government. 

Beijing denies the accusations of abuse against its over 1 million Uighur population, claiming the camps in the far western Xinjiang region offer voluntary education and training.

"We do not assume any of our employees are forced labourers," Volkswagen said, referring to the working conditions at the Urumqi facility, which is operated by a joint venture with the Chinese company SAIC.

The German government has urged China to uphold human rights. The country’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas called on Tuesday for China to "meet its international obligations on human rights".

Meanwhile, pro-business opposition liberal Free Democrats’ Johannes Vogel told German Deutschlandfunk public radio on Wednesday that German firms operating in Xinjiang, profiting from China's "suppression system" and crossing the "red line" on universal human rights, must face economic consequences.

Volkswagen in October postponed the final decision on a 1.3 billion-euro ($1.4 billion) plant in Turkey amid international criticism of the country’s military operation in northeast Syria and concerns about potential reputational fallout. The company was in the final stages of negotiation. 

Volkswagen is now eyeing Slovakia as the location for its new plant instead of Turkey, according to Automotive News Europe.