Biden hits China on solar panels over human rights abuses

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The Biden administration is moving to bar U.S. imports of a material used in solar panels produced by a Chinese-based firm that officials say is engaged in forced labor practices, ratcheting up pressure on China over its human rights abuses.

The White House said that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Protection issued a “withhold release order” on silica-based products produced by Hoshine Silicon Industry Co. Ltd. and its subsidiaries, which will result in personnel detaining shipments of Hoshine-made products.

The Biden administration said that the order was based on information “reasonably indicating” that the company, which is based in China’s Xinjiang region, engages in forced labor practices. The step is the latest evidence of the Biden administration taking steps to punish China over its human rights abuses against the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. 

“These actions demonstrate our commitment to imposing additional costs on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for engaging in cruel and inhumane forced labor practices and ensuring that Beijing plays by the rules of fair trade as part of the rules-based international order,” reads a White House fact sheet announcing the action.

“The United States believes that state-sponsored forced labor in Xinjiang is both an affront to human dignity and an example of the PRC’s unfair economic practices.”

In addition to the action by DHS, the Commerce Department is also slapping trade restrictions on five companies based in China for engaging in, accepting or using forced labor practices in Xinjiang. The companies include Hoshine Silicon Industry, Xinjiang Daqo New Energy, Xinjiang East Hope Nonferrous Metals, Xinjiang GCL New Energy Material Technology and XPCC.

The Labor Department is also updating a list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor to include polysilicon produced using forced labor in China.

The administration took the actions less than two weeks after the Group of Seven nations publicly committed to cutting forced labor practices out of global supply chains, after President Biden pressed for the group to take a harder line on Beijing’s practices during a summit in the United Kingdom.

“As President Biden made clear at the recent G7 summit, the United States will not tolerate modern day slavery in our supply chains,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Thursday morning.

Mayorkas said that the new order, which goes into effect immediately, “will ensure we continue to protect human rights and international labor standards, promote a fair and more competitive global marketplace and reinforce this administration’s commitment to deploy a whole of government approach to eradicating forced labor.”

Officials said that over two-and-a-half years U.S. direct imports from Hoshine have totaled $6 million while imports of downstream products have totaled $150 million.

It’s unclear how large of an impact the order will have on the U.S. solar industry, a central part of Biden’s effort to transition the U.S. to green energy to combat climate change. Officials said Thursday they did not have an estimate on the percentage of solar panels it would affect.

“Our environmental goals will not be achieved on the backs of human beings in a forced labor environment,” Mayorkas said. “We’re going to root out forced labor and we’re going to use alternative products that are manufactured and products legitimately in keeping with our values and our commitment to a fair marketplace.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade association representing the solar industry, said that it supported the Biden administration’s decision.

“The fact is, we do not have transparency into supply chains in the Xinjiang region, and there is too much risk in operating there. For that reason, in October, we began calling on solar companies to leave the region and we provided them a traceability protocol to help ensure there is not forced labor in the supply chain,” John Smirnow, the trade association’s general counsel and vice president of market strategy, said in a statement.

“SEIA will continue to work with the administration and our partners to stand against forced labor and build a clean energy future we can all be proud of,” Smirnow said.

Updated at 11:30 a.m.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas China Joe Biden solar panels Uighur Muslims
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