VW annual meeting rocked by cake attack, protests on China record

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BERLIN — Volkswagen Group’s annual meeting in Berlin on Wednesday was disrupted inside the venue by activists who claimed the automaker’s plant in Xinjiang, China, builds cars with forced labor and outside by green activists who said VW is “making climate-damaging decisions.”

About 10 activists, including one topless woman with ‘Dirty Money’ painted on her back, interrupted VW Group CEO Oliver Blume’s speech. They waved banners that read: ‘End Uyghur Forced Labor.’

One threw a piece of cake at Wolfgang Porsche, 80, chairman of Porsche SE, VW Group’s majority shareholder, but missed, with crumbs flying in the direction of VW Group Chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch.

The protestors were rapidly escorted out by security staff.

“A constructive dialogue is important. And a general meeting offers a good opportunity for this. With the exception of a few people, everyone follows the designated guidelines,” a VW spokesperson said.

VW Group China chief Ralf Brandstaetter said: “We do not see any evidence of human rights abuses at the plant.”

Brandstaetter visited the Xinjiang plant earlier this year and said on Wednesday: “I have no reason to doubt my impressions or the information available to me.”

Still, activists including Haiyuer Kuerban of the World Uyhur Congress highlighted the reports of mass internment camps and links between VW suppliers and companies with a presence there, as well as the difficulty for locals to speak openly given the state’s restrictions on free speech.

Blume did not mention the Xinjiang plant, a joint venture with SAIC Motor, which has become a sore point not just for human rights activists but also some shareholders, including top-20 investors Deka Investment and Union Investment.

Both urged VW to require of SAIC that it conducts an external independent audit of the plant.

“Volkswagen must be certain that its supply chains are clean,” said Ingo Speich, head of sustainability and corporate governance at Deka.

Dual role worries

Investors reiterated their longstanding critique of Blume’s dual role as head of both VW Group and Porsche, and the low valuation of Volkswagen stock, which has been in freefall for the past two years with no respite from the listing of Porsche last September.

Deka’s Speich praised Blume for addressing what he called the three most pressing issues at VW — China, its software unit Cariad and its work culture — but said the CEO was “still in the midst of cleaning up the mess” and that it was “too early to make a final assessment.” 

“The day has only 24 hours, even for you,” Speich said. “Your predecessor was already unable to master the enormous challenges with one group.”

China competition

Shareholders flagged rising competition from Chinese electric vehicle competitors in China, with BYD outselling VW as the top passenger car brand earlier this year.

Chinese EV makers, as well as Tesla, threaten not only to weigh on VW’s market share in China but also in Europe.

Blume acknowledged the fast pace of China’s electrification, and outlined VW’s strategy to hold on to its position as market leader — tailoring products to Chinese tastes and building local partnerships.

He said his dual role at VW and Porsche — by now Europe’s biggest carmaker by value — “works well and is paying off” even as investors continue to point to a conflict of interest.

Blume also said VW had a clear plan to increase its capital market valuation which will be presented at a capital markets day in June.

Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this report