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Solar Industry’s Reliance on Chinese Forced Labor Threatens Biden’s Green Economy

Solar material production skyrocketed in Xinjiang after Communist nation opened labor camps

A Chinese solar-panel worker in 2015 / Getty Images
and • April 7, 2021 5:00 am

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An unlikely coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and labor leaders are concerned by the solar industry's dependence on goods linked to Chinese forced labor camps, a development that threatens President Joe Biden's push for a green energy economy.

Western China's Xinjiang region—where China is forcing more than a million Uyghurs into brutal forced labor regimes—dominates the solar sector's supply chain. Nearly half of the world's polysilicon, a raw material crucial to producing solar cells, comes from Xinjiang. That economic dependency is attracting the attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers and union heads, who cite credible reports linking the solar industry to the modern-day slavery regime.

The first volley came from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. A top Biden ally whose union spent millions backing Democrats in 2020, Trumka called on the White House to block solar product imports from Xinjiang due to "convincing evidence of systematic forced labor" in a March letter. Weeks later, a group of eight GOP senators unveiled the Keep China Out of Solar Energy Act, which would prohibit the use of federal funds to purchase solar panels "manufactured or assembled in Communist China." 

Congressional Democrats are also getting in on the act. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) in March urged the Solar Energy Industries Association to "protect consumers from inadvertently contributing to human rights abuses abroad" by banning certain Xinjiang products. The national trade association, which represents more than 1,000 solar companies, responded by noting that it has called on its members to "completely leave the Xinjiang region by June."

The wide-ranging effort to distance U.S. solar from the Xinjiang genocide illustrates the challenges facing the Biden administration's "clean energy economy." Top White House climate officials have touted the solar sector's ability to deliver "good-paying union jobs," particularly for displaced fossil fuel workers. But China's stranglehold on the industry means most U.S. solar jobs merely involve installing Chinese-made parts. Biden's Environmental Protection Agency administrator conceded that dynamic during a recent confirmation hearing, stating "most of the parts we want to install come from China."

Heartland Institute president James Taylor told the Washington Free Beacon that it is "entirely impossible" to ramp up wind and solar power on the scale Biden is proposing without Chinese  goods. He also argued that the "high-paying jobs" Biden has promised "won't be in America."

"Conventional power plants are built here in the United States, they're built with materials produced here in the United States, they're operated and maintained here in the United States, and they employ workers perpetually here in the United States," Taylor said. "By comparison, wind and solar materials are mined and produced primarily overseas, the equipment is manufactured primarily overseas, and the jobs that are created … tend to be temporary."

The White House did not return a request for comment.

Salih Hudayar, the prime minister of the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, which is another name for Xinjiang, said that Xinjiang only produced raw materials for 9 percent of global solar production before 2016, the year the Chinese government started opening reeducation camps. Now, that number is up 400 percent. The huge spike in production capacity is likely driven by the use of forced labor, according to a report by Horizon Advisory, a D.C.-based consulting company.

Hudayar said Western companies are "kowtowing to China" by importing Xinjiang-made polysilicon. "They are selling out their moral, ethical, and Western values just to be able to operate in China," he said.

The solar industry is not the only industry under fire for its ties to Xinjiang. About one in five of the world's clothing apparels likely contain cotton grown in Xinjiang, much of which is produced by Uyghur forced laborers. While Western apparel firms such as H&M and Nike signed a pledge in 2020 to avoid Xinjiang-made cotton, some of the companies backpedaled after Chinese nationalists backed a nationwide boycott of all offending Western companies.

The Chinese government's steadfast refusal to acknowledge its atrocities in Xinjiang—and its willingness to punish Westerners who do—puts the Biden administration in a pickle, according to Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. While Biden in general supports a confrontational approach to China, he also hopes to cooperate with the authoritarian country on the issue of climate change. 

But that cooperation, Turkel said, should not come at the expense of Uyghurs.

"It is unconscionable that Americans who are conscious about climate change unwillingly become complicit in the ongoing modern slavery," Turkel said.

Published under: China, Feature, Uyghurs