The distance from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Beijing is 4,932 miles but Rabbi Barbara Borts up in the north-east has been doing her best to make her voice travel.
Forty years ago, she became one of the first women in Europe to be ordained as a rabbi, and today she is one of a small but growing number of British Jews taking to the streets to protest against China’s oppression of its Uyghur Muslim minority, something the United States calls “genocide”.
Noticeably, her recent stand was outside neither an embassy nor a consulate, but a Volkswagen dealership. Likewise in London, British Jews have been massing outside a VW showroom in Colney Hatch Lane on the North Circular.
It shows a shift in the battle lines – and battlegrounds. Letters to MPs, alas, did not work, so now the pressure has moved to companies and profit margins, in particular focusing on firms like VW which have factories in Xinjiang, the region where a million or more Uyghurs have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps.
In Newcastle, Borts says her protest – alongside Benny Ross, past chair of Newcastle Reform Synagogue – is more symbolic than practical. The dealership is located on a busy road with few passing pedestrians for her to collar and explain about China’s persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Be that as it may, hers is just one example of how Britain’s Jews are steadily taking their horror over Xinjiang further than the usual letters and petitions, especially as the Uyghurs’ plight has become far better known over the past year or two.
Back in February 2019, one of the first to hit the streets was Andrew – who prefers not to give his surname – an Orthodox businessman in north London who felt he just had to do something. His response has since inspired others, including Rabbi Borts.
That year satellites finally showed the extent of the vast camp network in Xinjiang, and he was moved to action. “China hides everything, but it can’t hide its camps from space, because of the sheer number of people involved,” Andrew says.
“These images made it clear what was going on, and the vast scale of it. With the obvious exception of the Holocaust, the world has never before seen the placing in concentration camps of millions of men, women and children on account of their religion.”
Several others have since joined him, including Baruch Solomon, Judith Shipton and her granddaughter, and Dan – whose surname is also withheld at his request – who saw Andrew holding up a placard by the side of the road and felt inspired to join him twice a week.
As campaigners the two men are now inseparable – “equal protagonists” as they describe themselves – with Dan even persuading Andrew to go to Speaker’s Corner. In short, things are ramping up.
ALL TOO FAMILIAR
Millions of Muslims in Chinese concentration camps and slave labour strikes a chord with Jews everywhere, they say, and Mia Hasenson-Gross, director of Jewish human rights group Rene Cassin, is another who has taken up the cause.
Jews “speak with experience” on the issue of persecution and forced labour, she says. “It goes back thousands of years, to the Egyptians, but also more recently, during the Second World War, when Jews were used as forced labour, including in occupied territory such as Alderney [one of the Channel Islands].”
On the Uyghurs, she says: “The evidence is indisputable. In both instances, forced labour is linked to genocide and the persecution of a people. In some cases, it is even the same companies collaborating with oppressing forces.”
The “strongest example” is Volkswagen, says Hasenson-Gross, to whom the company’s wartime record is not lost. “In the 1940s, VW operated four concentration camps and eight forced labour camps on its property, and actively sought out forced labour from the concentration camp system.”
VW is a target today because it has a small factory in Urumqi, in the heart of Xinjiang, where “at least one of its component suppliers uses thousands of Uyghurs as forced labour”, she claims.
Founded by Nazis in 1937, VW says no forced labour is used at Urumqi, but when pushed on this, its China’s chief executive Dr Stephan Wollenstein could not guarantee that none of his Uyghur employees had been through the camps.
One prominent German politician and member of the European Parliament says VW is “a company without a conscience, complicit in upholding a totalitarian hell in Xinjiang”. Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, a former Bundestag representative of Lower Saxony, where VW is based, said the company’s Xinjiang factory “gives the Chinese Communist Party a higher legitimacy”.
She says: “Volkswagen knows this. They have done it exactly for this, to get a comparative advantage. It was a political issue from the very beginning. Economically it is useless. It doesn’t make sense at all.”
FROM PARLIAMENT TO THE BOARDROOM
On 17 March last year, hundreds of Jewish schoolchildren and students were due to join Andrew and Dan in a protest at China’s cultural embassy but the lockdown ended those plans. Months later, they say, the focus shifted.
“In the November lockdown, a BBC piece by John Sudworth [who has since been forced to leave China owing to harassment] on Xinjiang was broadcast,” says Andrew. “That showed Dan and I that there was a new way to spread the message.”
They looked at several Volkswagen dealerships and settled on one on the North Circular, where tens of thousands of cars pass every hour. “At rush hour they crawl by so you get real engagement,” says Andrew. “Our demand is that VW cannot credibly carry on having a factory amongst concentration camps.”
The winter Olympics
Beijing is due to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022 but Zumretay Arkin at the World Uyghur Congress says the International Olympic Committee (IOC) “completely dismissed our experiences and sufferings” during a meeting in October. “They hedge behind political neutrality on China,” she says.
By letting China host the Games, critics say the IOC tacitly endorses the regime.
The IOC disagrees, saying its mission is to create a better world, but activists don’t buy it. “A better world to us means no camps, no forced labour, no cultural or religious repression, no arbitrary arrest, no police brutality, and no genocide,” says Arkin.
The recently re-elected IOC president Thomas Bach says he dislikes boycotts because “they don’t work” while insisting that human rights “will be part of the host city contract.This includes, for instance, supply chains or labour rights, and their freedom of press and many other issues.”
Yet the words ring hollow – what happened was that the IOC gave its Beijing 2022 uniform contract to the Chinese textiles firm Hengyuanxiang (HYX) Group, which makes no secret of its use of Xinjiang cotton. At a meeting in Beijing, Bach said he was “pleased to be working with HYX, one of the most famous textile companies in China”.
Now, René Cassin says it is working with the World Uyghur Congress, an international organisation of exiled Uyghur groups, “to label the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as ‘the Genocide Games’ and to persuade companies implicated in Uyghur forced labour to cleanse their supply chains”.
Dieter Steinert, professor of modern European history at the University of Wolverhampton and whose research interests include forced labour, fires a boardroom warning from the past, pointing out that companies using Jewish forced labour eventually had to pay out billions in compensation claims. “It is questionable whether all German firms have learned from history,” he says.
Adrian Zenz, a scholar focusing on China, adds that Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s “really is a very chilling comparison to the Uyghur context”.
Uyghurs, originally Turkic in origin, number around 12 million in Xinjiang. Ethnically and culturally, experts say they are “closer to Istanbul than Beijing” and are very distinct to the ethnic majority – Han Chinese.
Mao’s armies claimed Uyghur lands in 1949 and 60 years later, in 2009, tensions boiled over during the Urumqi riots, prompting Beijing to change strategy. Soon, state police were being bolstered, surveillance systems set up, and from 2014 a vast network of camps erected in desolate areas, into which a million or more Uyghurs were interned, to be indoctrinated – or ‘re-educated’, as Beijing calls it.
OPPRESSION AS STRATEGY
“The strategy is control and oppression,” says Zenz. “Now we are seeing people being shifted from camps to forced labour. Factories are springing up next to the camps surrounded by razor wire, sometimes even in the camps themselves.”
The Uyghur forced labourers – often educated and successful businesspeople – are put to work after being given a long-term prison sentence. “Beijing is using this strategy to destroy the culture and distinctiveness of this ethnic minority group.”
Parents and children are separated, education is ‘weaponised’, and Uyghur women are sterilised, he says, to bring down the Uyghur population. Meanwhile, forced labour is practised under the guise of “development” or “poverty alleviation”.
Beijing controls a great deal with technology, Zenz says, using apps to “categorise” people. “It’s predicated on a highly securitised society, similar to Nazi Germany, which was characterised by high social control. Xinjiang in 2021 is a high-tech police state. Everyone who can work must work, in a government-approved place.”
All this suits China. Xinjiang is a manufacturing hub, particularly in textiles, so millions of low-skilled labourers are needed to make clothes or assemble things like electronics, shoes, furniture, or toys. The region is also one of the world’s largest producers of cotton and tomatoes, both of which require pickers aplenty.
Western retailers such as H&M, New Balance, Hugo Boss, Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo and Burberry have expressed concern about the persecution and exploitation of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur labourers. Some, such as H&M, have gone further by promising to remove Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains. The White House has weighed in with its own export ban.
China’s backlash has included a boycott against the brands. H&M, for instance, had its stores removed from Baidu maps and its goods pulled from Chinese e-commerce sites. Hugo Boss initially tried to backtrack, promising to “continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton”, in a social media post it later deleted.
KEEPING UP THE PRESSURE
In the UK, there is no stopping. “The parallels are just too frightening,” says Borts. “I teach a Holocaust module at Newcastle University and wanted to do something because of the resonance. I was very moved by Andrew’s protests in London and tried to do something similar up here.
“With the fighting in Gaza [in May], I’m not sure how much energy there is to feel compassion, but to British Jews I’d say: ‘This is too close to what we went through. Whatever else you do, you must stand and protest in any way you can and donate money to people working on legal challengers.’
“People in power need to hear that we as Jews feel that there are similarities between what we went through and what’s going on today with the Uyghurs.”
It may take government action to really change things, she says, but if a VW boycott helps then so be it. Suddenly, this genial 78-year-old starts laughing. “My father boycotted VW! He’d never buy a German car, especially VW – ‘Hitler’s car!’”
In London, Dan and Andrew also plan to continue their Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon protests, starting outside the Southgate VW dealership 4.30-5.45pm, then moving to the Chinese cultural embassy in Hampstead from 6-7pm. Tuesday is described as “Jewish-led” while Wednesday is led by local Labour Party activists.
“They film us from behind their twitching curtains,” says Dan with a smile, when asked about any adverse reaction from the Chinese. “They’re embarrassed. They even took down the sign saying they were the Chinese embassy.”
Might the protests work? There is a chance they will help, says Andrew, because of the psychology involved. “If we pressure VW, that pressures China, and China doesn’t want to be seen as the world’s pariah,” he says.
“The Chinese mentality cares tremendously about ‘face’. They want to be seen as a good world power and they’re very offended by the thought that people know what’s going on in Xinjiang. That’s how we can help. We’re a match to light the kindling.” Dan echoes that. “I hope it goes worldwide and that more and more people get on board. Each person really makes a difference. For me, I can’t just sit there and do nothing after reading about what’s happening, it’s unconscionable. “I’m encouraged. We get a lot of Jewish people on Tuesday. Jewish News supports us, so does the Chief Rabbi. Bearing in mind our history, we aren’t just turning a blind eye to this. We’re being a light unto the nations.”
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