China competition bills in Senate, House target labor camps in region vital to green energy

A Chinese solar-panel worker in 2015 / Getty Images

Collin Anderson • June 11, 2021 12:10 pm

Congressional Democrats’ growing appetite for sanctions targeting Chinese companies engaged in the use of forced labor could cripple President Joe Biden’s alternative energy aspirations.

Senate Democrats voted Tuesday to pass a $250 billion China competition bill sponsored by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.). The legislation provides the Biden administration with “a broad range of tough authorities” to impose sanctions on Chinese entities “engaging in … the use of forced labor and other human rights abuses.” It also calls on the federal government to avoid reaching agreements “with any entity … that has any affiliation with a country that engages in forced labor.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.) in May introduced his own legislation aimed at countering the communist nation. The bill calls for the outright ban of “all goods, wares, articles, or merchandise” produced “wholly or in part by forced labor from the People’s Republic of China.” Meeks is expected to incorporate the measure with Schumer and Young’s bill, which is now headed to the House.

The interparty push to crack down on Chinese forced labor could force Biden to choose between his oft-touted “clean energy economy” and pledge to hold China accountable for its “genocide” against Uyghur Muslims. While Democrats’ various China competition bills do not directly link the nation’s solar industry with its forced labor camps in Xinjiang, the region produces roughly half of the world’s polysilicon—a raw material crucial to solar panel production.

Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry conceded in May that “some panels” manufactured in Xinjiang “are being produced with forced labor by Uyghurs.” Kerry added that the administration is considering sanctions against Xinjiang-made solar panels, but the White House has yet to offer an update and did not return a request for comment.

Should Schumer and Young’s bill reach Biden’s desk, the president may be pressed to tackle the issue sooner rather than later. While Biden has repeatedly pledged to address China’s human rights atrocities, his administration is also working to cooperate with the communist nation on climate change. Kerry in April said that any “differences on human rights” should not “get in the way of something that is as critical as dealing with climate.”

Biden’s $1.7 trillion infrastructure proposal aims to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035—a goal that would require U.S. solar production to quadruple, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Such a large-scale expansion, however, is not feasible without Chinese manufacturers, Heartland Institute president James Taylor told the Washington Free Beacon.

“It’s impossible to ramp up wind and solar power as the Biden administration desires without making our energy sector entirely dependent on China,” Taylor said.

According to Bloomberg Green, at least three major Xinjiang-based polysilicon manufacturers have been linked to China’s forced labor camps, where up to two million Uyghurs are being detained. The owner of one factory, for example, reported accepting 121 “minority workers” from southern Xinjiang in 2019. Such ties to the Chinese Communist Party-run camps would undoubtedly place the manufacturers in lawmakers’ crosshairs under the Senate and House competition bills.

Meeks’s proposal also calls on the United States to “encourage the international community” to cut down on “the import of any goods” made with Chinese forced labor. If America’s top allies obliged, the limited supply of solar energy products would make it even more difficult for the Biden administration to fulfill its pledge.

Congressional Democrats are not the only Biden associates pressing the administration to ban Xinjiang products. In a March letter, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka—whose union endorsed Biden in 2020—urged the White House to block solar imports from the region because of “convincing evidence of systematic forced labor.”

Senate Republicans echoed the call just weeks later, when eight members introduced the Keep China Out of Solar Energy Act. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), who cosponsored the legislation, portrayed the decision to bar the import of Xinjiang-based goods as one of common sense.

“What we need to do is just say, ‘You can’t purchase things that are made with forced labor,'” she told the Free Beacon. “A little bit of due diligence goes a very long way there.”