This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. electric car maker Tesla’s decision to open a showroom in China’s Xinjiang region amid an ongoing genocide of the predominently Muslim Uyghur minority group drew an immediate rebuke from rights activists and other experts who have documented abuses in the troubled area.
Austin, Texas-based Tesla, run by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, opened the store in Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) on Dec. 31.
“On the last day of 2021, we meet in Xinjiang. In 2022, let us together launch Xinjiang on its electric journey!” Musk said in a statement posted on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like social media platform. The post included photos of the opening ceremony.
For years, Chinese authorities have arbitrarily arrested Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang, restricted their religious practices and culture, and monitored their activities with a pervasive, digitized surveillance system. Many Uyghurs have been subjected to forced labor and other human rights abuses.
The U.S. government and the legislatures of several European countries have said that the abuses constitute a genocide and have imposed sanctions in an effort to stop what they regard as a crime against humanity.
Tesla’s decision, coming on the heels of the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) by the U.S. Congress, was “not just unethical but unconscionable,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress in Munich, Germany.
“We deplore the opening of the showroom by Tesla,” he told RFA on Tuesday. “We call on international bodies, human rights groups, and NGOs to condemn this move. Tesla’s move may potentially violate a number of U.S. laws, including the UFLPA.”
Western companies, including some based in the U.S., have come under fire for doing business in Xinjiang, either for running factories there that use forced labor or sourcing products such as cotton, wigs and tomatoes from the region.
The criticism along with a U.S. ban on the import of goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove that they were not manufactured with Uyghur forced labor has prompted some companies to stop their business activities in the region.
The Twitter account of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who sponsored the Uyghur forced labor law, also criticized Tesla’s move.
“Nationless corporations are helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up genocide and slave labor in the region,” the tweet stated.
RFA contacted Tesla by email for comment but did not receive a response. Tesla dissolved its media relations department in 2020.
“As a general matter, we believe the private sector should oppose the PRC’s human rights abuses and genocide in Xinjiang, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a regular press conference on Tuesday, referring to the People’s Republic of China, when asked about the Tesla showroom in Urumqi.
“As we’ve said before, companies that fail to address forced labor in their supply chains or other human rights abuses face serious legal, reputational, and customer risks not just from the United States, but in Europe and around the world,” she said. “We’ve been clear about our views on the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”
German researcher Adrian Zenz, who has documented China’s abuses against the Uyghurs, noted that Tesla would not be violating U.S. law if it limited itself to selling cars in the region.
Even so, Tesla’s decision “seems like a highly questionable choice to be going into that region trying to do business, but it’s poor messaging, really,” Zenz said.
“Tesla is betting big on China, and I’m sure they don’t want to lose business opportunities,” he said. “In order to preserve their interest in China, Western companies are going to be under pressure to ignore the atrocities in Xinjiang and to ignore related moral obligations and legal obligations.”
Though the U.S. is Tesla’s biggest market, the company has made significant inroads into China, opening its first non-U.S. factory in Shanghai in 2019. That plant is exempt from the government’s requirement of having a Chinese joint venture partner. Tesla has set up 28 other dealerships on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Macau.
U.S. automakers Ford and General Motors also operate dealerships in Xinjiang along with joint venture partners.