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Biden must get tough on China's forced-labor industries, including solar

Biden must get tough on China's forced-labor industries, including solar
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In late May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a withhold release order, preventing imports of seafood from a Chinese company that allegedly uses forced labor. “The U.S. will not tolerate forced labor in U.S. supply chains,” President BidenJoe BidenSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Biden appoints veteran housing, banking regulator as acting FHFA chief Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' MORE’s national security adviser, Jake SullivanJake Sullivan North Korea says it won't engage in talks with U.S. that would get nowhere Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Iran says US has agreed to lift sanctions on oil, shipping MORE, tweeted. “That’s why CBP took action to prevent imports of seafood from an entire fishing fleet that was found to engage in cruel and inhumane labor practices.”

But, here’s the thing: The company in question is Dalian Ocean Fishing Co. Ltd., and CBP acknowledged in its announcement that “the United States appears to be a lower-priority market for Dalian.” In 2020, Dalian’s exports to the U.S. totaled about $320,000, although in 2019 they were an order of magnitude higher. The company is currently in bankruptcy proceedings.  

No amount of forced labor is tolerable. Dalian Ocean Fishing absolutely should be held accountable. But the administration’s move is shrimpy. It is not a major victory. It reads like “talking the talk” without “walking the walk,” although it’s a welcomed development that the Senate Foreign Relations committee will hold a hearing today on addressing the atrocities that have occurred in Xinjiang. 

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Beijing routinely and deliberately tramples on human rights at home. The Chinese Communist Party is also projecting its repressive, authoritarian control globally — gaming international organizations such as the World Health Organization, setting international standards, co-opting media and corporate players, and otherwise weaponizing cooperation. 

Rhetoric suggests that the Biden administration realizes this — and with more nuance, as well as intent to compete strategically, than any of its predecessors. But right now, the spot-on rhetoric seems unmatched by action: What concrete steps the administration has taken to compete with China are largely continuations of Trump-era policy, rather than anything new, bigger or better. The Dalian Ocean Fishing action was the Biden administration’s first forced labor withhold release order. Between May 2020 and January 2021, the Trump administration issued 10 such orders targeting China. 

That shouldn’t be the case. The Biden administration could be uniquely positioned to compete with Beijing. The U.S.-China contest hinges on industrial capacity. President Biden recognizes the value of infrastructure, manufacturing and public-private partnerships. This contest demands scale: The administration is prioritizing multilateralism. It seems able to wrangle allies and partners. And, at its core, the U.S.-China showdown is about values. This is an administration that has promised to prioritize values.  

Right now, such a promise is not being met. A withhold release order against a single fishing fleet’s seafood imports to the United States is necessary but insufficient. The Biden administration needs to muster the guts to go after the bigger, more strategic targets, too.   

Those include the consumer electronics and automotive industries. They also include the solar industry — China produces some 80 percent of the world’s polysilicon, the main material input for solar cells. About half of global polysilicon production occurs in Xinjiang, the autonomous region in China where Beijing’s genocide of the ethnic Uyghur minority is concentrated. Since January, reports have circulated pointing to indicators of forced labor in Xinjiang polysilicon production. Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University recently released a bombshell report finding that every polysilicon manufacturer in the Uyghur region either has reported participation in labor transfer programs or relies upon suppliers who have. 

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The global solar power industry is worth $170 billion; the polysilicon industry, about $6.8 billion. China controls both industries. In 2020, the U.S. imported $7.7 billion worth of solar modules from Southeast Asia; 3.7 percent of those imports were from China. As with automobiles and electronics, solar is a strategic industry, likely to be a growing source of tomorrow’s energy.

It’s time for the Biden administration to match its “walk” with its talk. In May, at the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Mich., President Biden declared that “the future will be built right here in America.” Right now, however, his administration’s half-hearted action means that the future continues to be made in China, often with forced labor.

Emily de La Bruyere and Nathan Picarsic are co-founders of the consultancy Horizon Advisory, which assesses geopolitical, technological and economic change, and are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Note: This article was edited after publication to clarify that the U.S. imported solar modules from Southeast Asia, which includes Vietnam and Malaysia.