Human rights must not be forgotten amid China's empty climate change promises

Human rights advocates are concerned that the Chinese government will succeed in creating a tradeoff between climate goals and human rights. But ignoring the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where millions of Uyghurs live, undermines both goals.

In July, more than 40 progressive groups urged President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE and members of Congress to stop demonizing China because it “risks undermining much-needed climate cooperation.”

The Associated Press reported in September on concerns that U.S. officials were stalling the bipartisan, bicameral Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act because it would interfere in climate negotiations. This tradeoff is exactly what the CCP wants to see. It’s a win-win for China, but a lose-lose for the rest of the world.

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It was a huge relief to see the White House reject such a tradeoff in its readout on U.S.-China talks in Switzerland in October, stating that National Security Advisor Jake SullivanJake SullivanBiden tries to tamp down tensions with Putin call Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Biden to speak Thursday with Ukrainian president after call with Putin MORE "raised a number of areas where we have concern with the PRC’s actions," including human rights and the Uyghur crisis.

But action needs to match rhetoric. The Uyghur forced labor bill is still stuck. This legislation would ensure that goods made with Uyghur forced labor and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the Uyghur region do not enter the U.S. market. It’s been against the law to import forced-labor goods since 1930, but the bill would ensure that this law is properly enforced. 

The House passed the bill by a 400-vote margin in the last Congress, and the Senate passed it unanimously in July. So it was a real concern when White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiAustralia joins US in diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics Biden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report White House: Biden would veto GOP resolution to nix vaccine mandate MORE said on Oct. 6 that she didn't know the White House position on the bill. 

The administration and Congress cannot allow human rights in China to be a pawn in other negotiations. Doing so would not only ignore more than a decade of empty climate promises by the CCP, but it also undermines critical efforts in the U.S. to fight the climate crisis. 

China’s history of environmental action is one of many words and little action. The CCP is well aware that its empty climate promises allow politicians in the U.S. to claim victory in the media. U.S. climate envoy John KerryJohn KerryClimate policies propel a growing dysfunction of Western democracies Kerry calls out countries that need to 'step up' on climate change Those on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution MORE acknowledged this, telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April that trusting China’s climate change promises would be “stupid and malpractice.” 

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On the campaign trail and as president, Biden has repeatedly been outspoken on China’s genocide and human rights abuses. In his first two months in office, President Biden scored a big win by coordinating the first-ever joint sanctions on Chinese government officials over the CCP’s human rights abuses, imposed in March by the UK, EU, Canada and the U.S.

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Ocasio-Cortez: 'Embarrassment' that Democratic leaders are delaying Boebert punishment Overnight Health Care — Biden mandate faces Dem resistance MORE (D-Calif.) issued a statement praising the international sanctions, and Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden tries to tamp down tensions with Putin call Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Biden's 'Democracy Summit' meets the African paradox MORE emphasized that the sanctions were part of the administration's "ongoing commitment" to working multilaterally to counter China's abuses, as it "continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.”

Importantly, the Biden administration has continued the previous administration’s efforts to prevent Chinese solar equipment made with Uyghur forced labor from entering the U.S. market. In June, the administration banned imports from a major Chinese solar exporter for using forced labor, and imposed additional sanctions banning U.S. business dealings with four other Chinese solar companies that are implicated in state-imposed forced labor of Uyghurs.

The focus on human rights atrocities in China's solar industry is on target. Academic research documents that China’s use of forced labor is endemic in polysilicon manufacturing, accounting for approximately 45 percent of the world’s supply for solar-grade polysilicon.

But restricting imports of Chinese solar is not just a human rights issue. It's a climate change issue as well. Solar-panel manufacturing in the Uyghur region also relies on cheap coal power. In the last year alone, China added 38 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants – many of which are located in the Uyghur region – to manufacture polysilicon. That means China constructed about twice as much coal-fired power as the rest of the world decommissioned. In other words, the world actually added net coal-based power last year so that China could increase production of solar equipment made with forced labor and powered by coal.

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Most importantly, nobody can seriously believe we should build a clean-energy future that relies on products made under the combination of dirty coal plants and China’s genocidal forced-labor inputs. As the AFL-CIO pointed out in a major statement last week, the "solar industry, and its entire value chain, should exemplify how the United States meets the climate, equity and economic challenges of the 21st century." It’s a false choice to think we can achieve climate goals by abandoning our core values.

The Biden administration and Congress must not allow this false choice to influence public policy. Casting aside human rights issues in China would be a serious mistake.

Louisa Greve is the director of global advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a human rights research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @LouisaCGreve.