Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 25 June 2021


We can’t fight climate change using forced labor in China

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A man walks through solar panels at a power plant under construction in Xinjiang, China. (REUTERS) (Stringer China/Reuters)

President Biden says climate change is the “number one issue facing humanity,” but that we must fight it while still upholding our values, such as human rights. China is testing our ability to honor both goals, by running its solar industry using forced labor linked to an ongoing genocide. That simply can’t be tolerated or ignored. We can’t save the planet by increasing the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Most Americans likely don’t know that approximately 40 percent of the world’s polysilicon, a key component of solar panels, is manufactured in China’s northwest Xinjiang region, where the United States has determined the Chinese government is perpetrating a genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. As evidence amassed in recent months that the Chinese solar industry was employing these minorities without giving them any say in the matter, pressure mounted on the Biden administration to act.

On Thursday, the White House actedbanning the import of goods by Hoshine Silicon, one of the many Chinese solar companies it accuses of using forced labor in Xinjiang. The Commerce Department on Thursday also added Hoshine and four other Xinjiang companies to a list that prohibits U.S. companies from doing business with them. It’s a limited action, but the Biden administration is framing it as proof that its climate change agenda won’t dampen its commitment to defend human rights, even in China.

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“Our environmental goals will not be achieved on the backs of human beings in a forced labor environment,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Thursday.

Inside the administration, there was a fierce debate over the new sanctions, with some arguing that Biden’s ambitious climate change goals could suffer due to a disruption in the solar panel industry. The U.S. solar market might not be large enough to make the sanctions effective. And U.S. manufacturing of solar technology has dropped off a cliff over the past decade.

Of course, that’s largely because the Chinese firms have benefited from unfair advantages, such as cheap, forced labor, government subsidies and cheap energy from dirty coal plants in Xinjiang. Environmental degradation is just one more way Beijing is making the people of Xinjiang suffer to fuel Xi Jinping’s economic ambitions.

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The new sanctions also come at a sensitive moment in U.S.-China relations. The Biden team is quietly working with Beijing to begin a high-level dialogue that could lead to a summit between Biden and Xi. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is expected to travel to Beijing as part of a regional tour next month, officials said. The idea is to see whether bilateral relations can be ratcheted down from a boil to a simmer.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Biden administration can cooperate, compete and confront China all at the same time. But China’s leadership is becoming ever more sensitive and paranoid, especially regarding the genocide accusation. Chinese Communist Party propaganda outlets have been spreading genocide-denial disinformation while threatening any country or company that dares mention the atrocities. After the European Union announced minor Xinjiang-related sanctions, Beijing’s retaliation was so severe that it ended up scuttling a huge investment agreement.

Smartly, the Biden team is trying to avoid falling into the trap of ignoring Chinese human rights abuses in exchange for smooth relations. But China’s leaders are surely going to use Biden’s desire for stability to pressure the United States to back down. The U.S. business community and Wall Street are also pushing the administration to roll back sanctions and tariffs, which have raised the costs of doing business in China. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has identified 82 major corporations that are benefiting from Uyghur forced labor, including Apple, General Motors and Victoria’s Secret.

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Human rights advocates argue that companies doing business in China actually have a long-term interest in the human rights situation improving there. Just look at Hong Kong, where the worsening human rights situation is increasing the risk for all international businesses and investors.

“To just pursue trade and other interests in China, absent there being human rights progress there, was only ever going to get these companies so far,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told me. “Business interests and human rights interests ought not be on opposite sides of the equation. They are fundamentally overlapping.”

The issue won’t go away. Now that Americans are aware of these atrocities, they won’t want to be complicit in them by buying the resulting cotton or solar panels. But that’s just the beginning. There’s more work to be done. We are going to need more sanctions, not fewer, to be able to honestly say we attempted to stop a genocide.

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It may take longer to achieve our climate change goals if we refuse to use forced-labor-linked products. But the end result will be a more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, more humane clean energy industry. That’s better not just for the Uyghurs but also for the planet.

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