Two Powerful Progressive Political Groups Are At Odds Over China
China has played the western world’s concerns over climate change like Tom Brady on Superbowl Sunday. Now they’ve successfully pitted saving the planet against Washington’s human rights concerns in Xinjiang. Who will win?
Make no mistake about it, that after roughly a decade of hearing about C02 emissions leading to global warming, and how Washington and Brussels would slowly eradicate fossil fuels from their transportation and electric power grid, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knew what needed to be done. They directed private and state-owned enterprises to get involved in mining the metals that go into your Tesla
Yet, unhappy with a roughly 80% market share of U.S. for solar panels (and a near 100% market share of the supply of polysilicon, a key ingredient in making solar panels), China wants more. Tariffs stand in its way. And so do human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims in the far western Xinjiang province.
Xinjiang was home to roughly 50% of China’s polysilicon production. One major player there, Hoshine Silicon, is banned by Customs from the U.S. supply chain. So any solar cells or finished panel made with Hoshine supplies gets stuck at an American port somewhere. The ban is due to forced labor violations of Uyghur prison labor, believed to be taking place at Hoshine.
Two Democratic Party causes are now at odds with one another: climate change, and human rights.
Nancy Pelosi kicked this debate into high gear recently when she said it was important to work with China on climate change despite their “continuation of the genocide of the Uyghurs.” (This Twitter account has the video dated September 16.)
Pelosi has said this before, in 2009 in fact. Only then, the newly elected Obama State Department didn’t say China was committing genocide against minorities as it does now.
Shortly after Pelosi said working with China on climate change was too important to cast aside, the AP ran this story: “Advocates fear US weighing climate vs. human rights on China”.
It would be “disastrous in the long term for the United States government to backtrack, tone down, let the Chinese manipulate the issue,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur advocate and the vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory panel that makes policy recommendations to the White House and Congress.
Worth noting, on September 3, White House climate czar John Kerry was told by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, that the two sides had to stop their trade war to work together on climate change. The Chinese diplomat said, precisely, that Beijing needed to see some “positive steps” – which of course means ending tariffs and trade bans on strategic industries, including the Customs ban on Hoshine’s polysilicon. Why wouldn’t it?
Shortly after Kerry’s meeting in China, President Biden said he wanted solar to go from just around 4% of the U.S. energy grid to a whopping 40% in 30 years.
It’s a long time from now, but China doesn’t think quarterly. China thinks 100 years out. Thirty years is nothing. Thirty years ago, China was making Happy Meal toys and pedaling Schwinn bikes to work in the rain. Today, they own your kids smartphone time and can tell alpha male Hollywood star John Cena what to do.
China must see a big opening in Biden’s pronouncement. They know that if Biden wants to meet that goal, then Beijing can offer help, “but let’s stop fighting over these Uyghurs.” And, of course, “let’s forget about solar tariffs and save the planet together.”
That this narrative comes from a country that has built more coal-fired power plants in 2020 than any nation on earth, and generates 70% of its electricity from coal, should not be lost on the climate crisis types. But for some reason, it is.
China-made solar potentially comes from forced labor polysilicon. The solar cells that go into solar panels are made at coal-fired factories.
China multinationals have been moving supply to Southeast Asia. JA Solar is in Malaysia. Jinko Solar is spending $500 million on a new facility in Vietnam. Think about how much money that is in Vietnam.
On Monday, September 28, 12 Democratic Senators sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo about solar companies there. In it, they warned that if her department goes ahead and imposes new tariffs on Chinese multinationals in Southeast Asia, it will “put (solar deployment goals) at serious risk given the Administration’s focus on solar as a principal solution to addressing climate change.”
It is clear that the U.S. solar industry cannot produce all of the solar the U.S. needs. But what U.S.-based company, including Jinko Solar in Florida and a new Canadian one setting up shop in New York on the Pennsylvania border, will want to ramp up production and investment if they are going to compete with heavily subsidized, low wage, low environmental regulation product flowing in from Southeast Asia?
The 12 Senators, including Sheldon Whitehouse from Raimondo’s home state of Rhode Island, even noted in their letter that in the first half of 2021, solar imports from Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam accounted for 80% percent of all solar panel imports and 59% of total U.S. panel supply.
A higher tariff on those products would, they argue, crush demand. They argued similarly when global solar tariffs, and anti-dumping tariffs specific to China, were imposed. But solar kept on growing with installations up 43% in 2020. Prices did not skyrocket, as this New Yorker article highlighted back in April.
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In theory, human rights in Xinjiang should be the national security issue for the Democrats. Instead they are largely torn between those traditional liberal principals and building the post-fossil fuel economy at warp speed.
This aligns perfectly with the ambitions of wise economic planners in Beijing, and with the lobby groups representing Chinese importers and solar installation companies. They are trying to convince Washington that they need China and her solar juggernauts in Southeast Asia to meet Biden’s post-fossil fuel economy goals.
And so in a very weird sense, Chairman Xi has become the Smokey Bear of America’s climate policy – “Only Xi can prevent global warming.”
Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) doesn’t want to rely on China. “We’re hugely reliant upon Chinese supply chains tainted by Uyghur forced labor to produce this solar-energy production capacity,” he said on September 23.
Ossoff advocates for making more solar cells and solar panels here. He is pushing for a number of policies to make that happen.
There are other bills in the Senate that are designed to ban imports from Xinjiang, as well, due to human rights violations.
“The CCP is running a massive system of labor camps in Xinjiang. These facts are confirmed by the testimony of former camp detainees, satellite imagery, media reports, and leaked government documents, as reported in the New York Times,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said in a letter to Biden on Tuesday. “We are concerned that Mr. Kerry is downplaying the genocide precisely because he intends to import solar panels that are produced using forced labor…in order to meet your administration’s climate goals.”
“Republicans and Democrats are united on addressing the CCP’s ongoing crimes, including genocide,” they wrote to Biden. “History will judge us on how we respond. We hope that you will join us in standing with the oppressed.”
So, who is more oppressed: the Uyghurs or the Earth?
If it’s the Earth, bad for the Uyghurs, great for Beijing, not so great for U.S. solar manufacturers.
The sales pitch for those who want to sell more here is the planet in peril fear pitch. They’ll save us, but Washington will have to go easier on China and their partners in the south to do so. If not, prices will rise, the whole thing will blow up. The planet will suffer.
Human rights, meanwhile, will have to mask up and go to the back of the bus.