Chinese workers at the FAW-Volkswagen Automobile plant in Changchun, in the northeast of China, hardly interact with the many Germans or even with the Chinese managers in their dark suits who pour in and out of different buildings at the plant.

As in many big manufacturing organisations, there is a fairly rigid separation between what some still call ‘the floor’, and the offices where strategy, logistics, financial matters or some such are discussed.

FAW-VW plant in Changchun
FAW-VW plant in Changchun. File Photo: GovChina.

“The Germans have no idea what is going on here, or what’s going on in China for that matter,” said Zehra, a worker originally from Xinjiang, for whom we are using a psudonym for her protection.

I visited the plant in question for a completely different story, but forever lost in thought I got physically lost and ran into the lone machine operator, Zehra. I was struck by her stark beauty and what I later imagined to be sad, melancholy eyes.

The Chinese car manufacturer, First Automobile Works or FAW, had sent most of her Uyghur colleagues back to Xinjiang. “They didn’t want us here. What if we talk with the Germans?” She waved a dismissive hand in the general direction of the buildings near the gate.

By coincidence, a gleaming Audi Q5 passed us at that moment. The person inside – Caucasian, brown hair, light shirt, no tie – looked at us non-plussed and returned what he probably thought was a wave directed at him. I smiled and raised a gloved hand.

Changchun is cold most of the year and I was not sitting in the warm comfort of an Audi with Vorsprung durch Technik. Zehralooked in the direction where the car had disappeared around a corner. “He only waved because you are here, you know. They don’t talk to us.” I wondered and wonder still if she meant us Muslims, us Chinese or us workers. Probably all of the above.

Zehra was still safe in Changchun, when I met her in November 2018, because her ethnicity said Hui, even though she has a Uyghur name. The Hui are a minority that is traditionally also Muslim, but most look Han Chinese and have adopted many Han Chinese ways.

“My father is Hui, but my mother is Uyghur and she wanted me to have a Uyghur name. I am proud of my name, but it is not easy nowadays.” Friends of the family have been sent to the camps.

“We had a neighbour who was a mathematics teacher. He and his son were both sent to the camps. His son is an engineer. A maths teacher and an engineer do not need vocational training,” she said, using the euphemism that the Communist Party employs to describe the mass internment program.

FAW-VW plant Changchun
The FAW-VW plant in Changchun. Photo: Volkswagen.

She only talked with a foreign VW employee once. “I met a man from Bosnia. He spoke German, but also a little Turkish. I know some Turkish. That man was a Muslim, so I appealed to him as a brother.” Zehra looked at the ground. “He didn’t want to listen. Maybe it was my work clothes or my poor Turkish. Maybe it was just… Maybe he just didn’t want to know.”

There is an infamous German phrase: ‘wir haben es nicht gewußt’. When confronted with the atrocities that their leaders had ordered against the Jews and others not sufficiently politically or ethnically pure, many Germans said it: we didn’t know.

The award-winning Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch wrote in ‘Criminal Case 40/61’, that he, too, the son of a Jewish mother and an Austrian father, had often heard Germans and Austrians say that they had not known the extent of the atrocities committed under National Socialism.

The horrible killing was done by brutes and sadists, but it was planned by mundane technocrats, such as the defendant in the Israeli prosecutorial case 40/61 that provided the title for his book: Adolf Eichmann.

Harry Mulisch flew to Israel to witness the trial, because he was fascinated by Eichmann’s character: “an obsessive, obedient, entirely insubstantial man […] the kind of person who made it possible for others to say that they hadn’t known […] if the Israelis had put an empty SS uniform in the cage, with an SS hat hovering above it, they would have had a defendant of greater reality.”

Hannah Arendt, another chronicler of this case, contemplated ‘the banality of evil’. Today I wonder which faceless bureaucrat at Volkswagen will read this and dismiss it. Let us not dwell on who could be a Chinese Eichmann and make any hints about that person’s Führer.

Today, Volkswagen AG or the Volkswagen Group is not just the manufacturer of midrange, dependable cars under its own brand. It owns icons of luxury such as Audi and Bentley, working-class brands like Skoda and Seat, and trucks with the MAN and Scania labels.

Occasionally, when Toyota hits a bad quarter, or Nissan/Renault has a hiccup, Volkswagen Group slips into first place, as the world’s biggest car manufacturer. It recently announced a strategic partnership with Ford in order to bypass some of the more onerous tariffs flying out of a newly mercantilist White House.

The company is one of the giants of the advanced German economy. Supermarkets in Wolfsburg, a company town built by the National Socialist government to house workers for the Car of the People, even sell sausages that carry the VW logo.

These are produced by the dedicated factory catering service and find their way to the surrounding supermarkets as cheap byproducts of automobile manufacturing. VW is a national symbol for Germany. This became clear when the company got into serious problems.

In September 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency discovered that VW had committed widespread fraud regarding noxious emissions from its diesel engines. The German provincial and federal governments stepped in to save the company. Another result of the diesel scandal was that VW relied even more on sales in China to stay afloat.

Ferdinand Porsche Volkswagen tombola
German Press Ball 1939. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche presents the Volkswagen tombola prize to Mrs. Elsa Ellinghausen, the lucky winner. Photo: German Federal Archives.

Still, doing business in China and the diesel scandal clearly does not justify bringing up the difficult origins of Volkswagen. Why dwell on the now relatively distant past? This is dangerous territory to venture into, so why not just leave these comparisons aside?

Any comparison would contribute to the insidious tendency in our common discourse to resort to moral relativism. Your columnist has been called a Nazi on social media. I mean, who hasn’t?

The label has been applied to the current President of the United States, any Christian who signed the Nashville Accord, that one girl who abstained from a politically charged gender definition in the Berkeley Student Senate, and yours truly.

Clearly, no open and frank debate benefits from this kind of name-calling, which contributes to a degree of inflation of the term Nazi and the name Hitler. Indeed, one of my friends believes that many Americans voted for Trump because they got so sick and tired of every honest and decent conservative being branded a ‘Nazi’ by the left that they finally decided to vote for the buffoon who came the closest to the real thing.

To put it more succinctly, shouldn’t we all heed the advice of that John Cleese character, Basil Fawlty, and ‘not mention the war’?

One reason is that the past is present again, but on the other side of the world. Far away from the kind but reserved post-war Germans with their quaint little houses surrounded by manicured lawns are up to a million Uyghurs kept in modern camps.

If the compound noun concentration camp was not associated with the extermination camps of the Third Reich, we could simply call the camps in Xinjiang that, since they do certainly fit the older definition.

The Cuban General Valerino Weyler started it by separating large groups of people from the general population in what he called ‘reconcentration camps’, and the practice was copied by the Americans against native Americans, by the English against white farmers during the two Boer Wars in South Africa, by Lenin against enemies of the branch of Marxism that would soon be hyphenated with his name.

It is very difficult to write about this particular German car maker and its businesses in an authoritarian country and not mention that it was founded in 1937, by the National Socialist government and their collaborators, one of them a man with the family name Porsche.

Nowadays we tend to see the National Socialists as from the far right. We say ‘Nazis’ and forget what it stands for. German National Socialism and Chinese Marxism-Leninism are actually brothers under the skin.

Xi Jinping’s Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Race echoes a few Blood and Soil ideas of Adolf Hitler. Xi Jinping’s ideas about Socialism with Chinese Characteristics are not far removed from what German Propaganda Minister Jozef Goebbels called ‘Das echte Sozialismus’ – the real socialism: the idea that all social classes would be united under a greater good, namely the nation state.

Both ideologies combine the two most dangerous and basest inclinations of mankind: the tribal envy of nationalism with the class envy of socialism.

To their credit, post-war German governments have certainly spoken out against human rights abuses and German Chancellors have not been too shy to remind their domestic audiences of their historical guilt.

German education is guilt-ridden, to such an extent that young Germans are more prone to repeat Basil Fawlty’s words not as advice, but as a lament. German foreign policy is still immensely coloured by the original sin of National Socialism.

Modern German social democracy is mild-mannered and its modern nationalism, though ugly, is still on the fringes and more popular in the formerly Communist east, where one authoritarian regime was replaced by another, without much by way of critical investigation of the past.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: Kremlin.

German companies with National Socialist heritage have done much less than their successive governments to come to terms with the past. They tried very hard to leave it behind by running into the future and contributing to the west-German post-war economic miracle, the Wirtschaftswunder.

It is more difficult for profit-seeking companies to maintain their ideological purity in the dirty world of business than it is for preachy foreign ministers in the anodyne world of diplomacy. A little cheating on emission standards goes a long way to secure sales and then when the scandal is revealed – we didn’t know.

To sell cars in the biggest market in the world, you need to do the same thing that the previous generation did during the war, just do your job and not look at the nastiness going on. Follow orders and keep your head down. People at Volkswagen can remain blissfully ignorant.

The German car maker had already been in China for over three decades when the diesel cheating came to light. Their first venture into China was shortly after Deng Xiaoping announced his Era of Reform and Opening Up and involved a Shanghai manufacturer of trucks.

Clunky Chinese-made cars with the famous VW logo soon rolled out of the plant and were ready to be sold to the upwardly mobile who wanted to be actually mobile. More co-operation followed and in November 1990 Volkswagen AG signed a joint venture agreement with First Automotive Works of China.

The Chinese partner, FAW, was a symbol of China’s centrally planned attempts to catch up with the west in the decades before. It was, quite literally, China’s first automotive company. To remind drivers the company’s logo is a number 1 surrounded by three horizontal bars on either side.

Jiang Zemin actually worked there on his way up the slippery Party pole; he would eventually reach its pinnacle and become General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the People’s Republic. He was one of the men who pushed for the joint venture and the characteristically over the top Party media hailed it as a “new beginning of greatness in automotive excellence for the glory of China.”

The news item about the deal ended with the inevitable slogan: “praise the Communist Party of China and its paramount leadership”. The article did not mention that this was the first big western company to sign such a symbolic deal since the globally denounced crackdown on the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

1989 Tiananmen Students
Students from the Academy of Song and Theatre joining the demonstrations from a pick up truck on May 4th, 1989, with brass instruments. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala.

Meanwhile, in Germany, nobody at Volkswagen could claim not to know about the Tiananmen Massacre, but they did their utmost best to downplay it and sell sceptics the illusion that commercial engagement with China would eventually free the Chinese people.

The same myth was sold as gospel later when governments from free, prosperous economies allowed China to join the World Trade Organization. Germans actually have a spiffy phrase for this, too: ‘Wandel durch Handel’. It means ‘change through trade’.

Only the most naïve observer of China today can say that China has changed for the better through international trade. There are more cars on the road, but there are also more political prisoners in jail.

People have been lifted out of poverty, even though the Communist Party that has taken the credit for it did its utmost to put them there in the first place. Trade is great, but that trade is happening in the shadow cast by a barbed wire fence and a huge watchtower.

On the other side of the fence Muslim prisoners have to sing songs extolling the Communist Party of China and praising its leader for life, the Party’s Core, Xi Jinping. Factories have sprung up next to the camps. The newly re-educated work there for no or little payment.

There are no reports that of a sign above the gate saying Arbeit macht Frei, as one did above the gate to Auschwitz, but there are rumours that FAW, the partner of Volkswagen, has a few contracts with companies that supply them with material sourced from Muslim slave labour.

As long as this practice is a few steps removed from Volkswagen, the Germans can feign ignorance. When asked for a response Volkswagen pointedly ignored the behaviour of their longtime partner FAW and only provided anodyne comments about VW’s commitment to inclusivity.

There were already camps throughout China when Volkswagen signed the deal with FAW. These were called laogai, where those considered insufficiently grateful for the benefits that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics had brought them would be ‘changed through labour’. That labour went unpaid, of course.

The Chinese gulag never reached the horrible dimensions of the one in the Soviet Union, but the camps were as much an integral part of the Communist Party’s control as they had been in the Soviet Union. When Volkswagen signed the deal with FAW, there was the self-serving belief that Wandel durch Handel would work. Widespread Wandel durch Arbeit was ignored.

In those days the west was feeling good about mankind’s collective future – it was clear that it was not going to be a collectivist, Socialist future. Just a month before the signing of the joint venture agreement Germany had reunited with the formerly Socialist east.

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay for the National Interest titled ‘The End of History?’ and when it was eventually expanded into a book the question mark had disappeared.

The government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl believed, like so many governments in those days, that the west was on the right path. The wilder shores of Marx such as Cuba, North Korea and China, would soon join Fukuyama’s eternal arcadia of liberal democracy.

In this atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that there were few dissenting voices about co-operation with a state-owned company in an authoritarian country.

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Since then VW has doubled down on China, expanding production ranges across China, signing more deals with Chinese companies, investing heavily in research and development for electric vehicles and projecting sales to ensure VW’s future for another generation, in a future with significantly fewer fossil fuels.

Already in 2017, VW successfully clawed back from the damage done by the diesel scandal. In that year, its global sales of all its brands together hit 10.74 million vehicles, with 4.18 million of those being sold in China.

“The future [of VW] is to be decided by the Chinese market,” CEO Herbert Diess said a week into 2019. The company is even working on creating its own network of charging stations across China for future electric vehicles.

The German carmaker is so deeply invested in China that two reliable sources confirm that prominent figures associated with Volkswagen informally lobbied the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, not to bring up China’s programme of mass internment of Muslims and other ideological enemies in Xinjiang when he visited his counterpart Wang Yi in November 2018.

Volkswagen neither confirms nor denies this lobbying and stipulates that all conversations between VW and the Foreign Ministry remain confidential. The Foreign Ministry sent a terse statement when asked about pressure to remain silent which said that Minister Maas was not deterred or would not have been deterred.

It went on to praise the standards of German companies and the sterling track record of the German government on holding human rights abusers to account. I am not sure what a non-denial denial is in German.

When the wholly undeterred Heiko Maas did bring up the camps in Xinjiang, Minister Wang Yi kept the poker face that is a job requirement for Chinese officials. The apparatchik told the German Foreign Minister not to believe ‘rumours’.

Systems built around powerful and unforgiving State machines make dissent costly. Any German with a sense of history surely understands this inclination to believe propaganda and ignore inconvenient truths as ‘rumours’.

The truth is that in China today people of a different ethnic background than the majority Han Chinese are singled out to be sent to camps. These people have a religion that is seen by the government as irreconcilable with its own totalitarian ideology. How can one not be reminded of National Socialism?

The similarities are inescapable to anyone but the most ignorant Volkswagen executive – that would be the same ones who claimed not to know about the tampering with diesel software. To be clear, Foreign Minister Maas deserves credit for his actions, asking these difficult questions publicly.

What he did is laudable and reflects well on the German government and the people it represents. Pressure from China to remain silent on human rights abuses is so common that there is no need to point it out here.

However, that a domestic company is, well, ‘rumoured’ to have added to that pressure is worrisome. That this industrial giant has a troubling origin story and a mixed reputation for openness and honesty makes this columnist wonder.

Heiko Maas Wang Yi
Heiko Maas meeting Wang Yi. Photo: Chinese government.

Volkswagen seems to be an outlier when it comes to German companies in China. Most are rolling back their investments in the country and report that they feel less welcome than before. The German government openly worries about the Chinese undermining the liberal world order that has anchored the country with a troubled past in a system that promotes a peaceful resolution of differences.

Germany feels that its traditional Wandel durch Handel approach and quiet diplomacy has failed when it comes to China, but that ‘Handel’, trade, is still vitally important for many domestic firms.

Moreover, it is not just China that is undermining the world order that has made the country that started two world wars peaceful and pacifist. President Donald Trump prefers bilateral deals and ‘America First’ to the grand alliances that have maintained stability.

Germany is still solidly inside the European Union, but that bloc has had years of internal fighting and is even less popular with the larger European citizenry than many national politicians of the member states are.

French rail giant Alstom and the German railways arm of the German conglomerate Siemens recently announced that they wanted to merge, citing competition from a Chinese state-owned giant as the reason. EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, blocked the deal.

Although the EU had perfectly valid reasons for denying the merger, since less competition would not be good for the internal European railway manufacturing market, the signal to Beijing was that the EU is more concerned with internal squabbles and politicking than in standing firm against competition from heavily subsidized State-Owned Enterprises that are effectively run by the Communist Party of China.

Zehra had no idea about all those big, geopolitical questions. She was simply worried about her friends, former co-workers or old neighbours back in Hotan – and she feared for her own future. Her grimy but starkly beautiful face showed signs of this stress.

She told me in halting Chinese and a little English about how friends had been harassed by the police, how mosques were being monitored, how Han Chinese shouted anti-Muslim slogans at her when she wore a headscarf visiting relatives in the south of China, how the police did nothing against anti-Muslim violence.

She told me of friends of hers in Xinjiang. “They’re too scared to talk about anything on the phone. Everything is being monitored. I get fewer and fewer calls and only the most… innocent WeChat messages. Only messages about nothing, about the weather, about pop music.”

We went through our own very common activity of exchange in China, scanning WeChat codes to become friends. Her username was in Chinese characters. Her profile picture was a Chinese cartoon character. But when I asked her if she felt Chinese, she fell silent.

“Maybe still, yes. But not as much as I used to. Maybe I’ve just learned too much…” She never finished that thought and just whispered “How can they do this to people? How can they treat other human beings like animals, like cattle? Don’t they have fathers and mothers? Grandparents? Don’t they have children?”

Uyghur Uighur Xinjiang detention centre reeducation camp
File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

My Chinese is inadequate to console her and her English is too inadequate to understand any of my bland replies. Suddenly there were just two people there and I was wondering if language was just the excuse I used not to reach out.

And so I extended my arms, not certain of what her cultural, religious or personal boundaries were. The boundaries, if any, faded away in the November cold. She hugged me tightly and said things I could not understand. And yet I could feel the meaning of her words, for fear and suffering transcend linguistic barriers.

When she let go, I understood her on a much deeper level than I could ever share with you here. Eventually, she put it into simple words: “I don’t know who can protect me if someone thinks I should be… re-educated.”

Certainly not the people of Volkswagen. They do not know. Or pretend not to know.


That should have been the end of this story and it should have been much shorter, with poignant turns of phrase and more geopolitics than subjective human feelings. But I spent a lot of time getting answers from German bureaucrats, insights from friends in the automotive industry and when I started writing this I decided to reach out to Zehra again.

We had sent each other WeChat messages, but these had been, by necessity, about innocent topics. WeChat is a program created by Tencent, a Chinese technology giant and in China, no private company is free to refuse scrutiny by Chinese state officials.

Indeed, Tencent has proactively employed a small army of ‘content managers’ – not government censors, but employees of a private company who have to make sure that messages shared do not go to the actual censors!

When I asked if we could meet again to talk in private, she responded cryptically that she was visiting relatives. When I called her she was evasive on the phone. I realised I should have set up a more secure way to reach her, but after pulling an inordinate amount of strings from various Chinese friends I managed to visit her in Hotan, in Xinjiang.

FAW had told her she had to go home. “I could not stay there without a job, my hukou [internal Chinese passport] is from here.” She was taking care of an elderly great-aunt now and was awaiting news from friends and relatives in the camps.

When I left their house my driver was waiting anxiously and told me we had to go – and fast. He had been asked to drive me around by a relative of a friend of a cousin’s friend, in one of those stretched out Chinese network chains, and from the moment we met he had been uneasy with this task.

Now he had been told by a heavily armed member of the People’s Armed Police that a foreigner could not go unescorted. He was relieved when I got into the car, starting the engine even before I could get my long legs in. He was so eager to leave that I hardly had the chance to wave at the two women in the house.

The last image in my mind, before the acceleration of our car shrouded the house in dust, was the great-aunt raising a flour-covered hand, standing in her kitchen. My driver pulled at the steering wheel of the car as if he was fighting a bull. I took my eyes off the rearview mirror and the dust storm we had created.

I tried to steady myself in my seat, amused and a bit scared by my driver’s determination to get out of there as fast as possible. I wanted to comment on his driving when I noticed the four rings on the steering wheel. We were in an Audi.

A Dutch version of this story was written for the magazine ‘Epoque’. If you can read Dutch and enjoy great journalism, click here.

Alexander is a lecturer at the Arnhem Business School in the Netherlands and a fellow of the Sima Qian Foundation, advising governments and businesses about how the rise of China affects the global economy. With over ten years of work experience in China, he has written extensively about Chinese business and how free market solutions would solve many of China's problems. He has published books and articles in Dutch and English. On Press Freedom Day 2016 a Dutch collection of his essays was published by Pharos publishers and the proceeds were donated to HKFP.