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US bans imports of some Chinese solar materials tied to forced labor

A significant portion of the world's polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels, comes from Xinjiang, where the United States has accused China of committing genocide through its repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities

By Thomas Kaplan, Chris Buckley and Brad Plumer
Published: Jun 26, 2021

US bans imports of some Chinese solar materials tied to forced laborHAMI, CHINA - AUGUST 22: Construction workers install solar panels at Hami Solar Power Station on August 22, 2011 in Hami, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images

The White House announced steps on Thursday to crack down on forced labor in the supply chain for solar panels in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, including a ban on imports from a silicon producer there.

A significant portion of the world’s polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels, comes from Xinjiang, where the United States has accused China of committing genocide through its repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

In one of the newly announced actions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned imports of silica-based products made by Hoshine Silicon Industry Co. as well as goods made using those products. The agency “has information reasonably indicating that Hoshine uses forced labor to produce its silica-based products,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said at a news conference.

The action was notable given the Biden administration’s push to expand the use of solar power in the United States to help achieve its climate goals. China dominates the global supply chain for solar power, producing a significant amount of the materials and parts needed for solar panels. Cutting off access to some imports could make it harder or more costly for the United States to expand solar use domestically.

Mayorkas addressed that tension at the news conference, saying, “Our environmental goals will not be achieved on the backs of human beings in a forced-labor environment.”
The Commerce Department also added Hoshine Silicon Industry (Shanshan) Co. and four other Chinese entities to a trade blacklist, a move that restricts American companies from exporting products and technology to them.

In addition, the Labor Department added Chinese polysilicon to a list of goods believed to be produced by child labor or forced labor. The list, which already contained a number of other Chinese goods, is intended to increase awareness about exploitative labor practices.

Calls to Hoshine were not answered late on Thursday in China. Xinjiang companies, including makers of polysilicon products, have repeatedly denied that the region’s labor transfer programs amount to forced labor.

Allegations of forced labor in the solar panel supply chain have created a dilemma for U.S. officials. The Biden administration wants to press China over human rights abuses, but it also wants to expand the use of clean energy sources like solar power in the United States as it seeks to reduce carbon emissions.

The administration has set a goal of generating 100% of the nation’s electricity from carbon-free sources such as solar, wind or nuclear power by 2035, up from just 40% last year. To help meet that target, it is aiming to more than double the annual pace of solar installations nationwide and cut the price of solar power by more than half.

“We’re going to root out forced labor wherever it exists,” Mayorkas said at the news conference, “and we’ll look for alternative products to achieve the environmental impacts that are a critical goal of this administration.”

Shortly before President Joe Biden took office, the Trump administration banned imports of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang. The Biden administration had faced pressure to take action regarding products containing polysilicon produced in the region.

In a letter this month to the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, a group of House Democrats wrote that there was “overwhelming evidence of the use of forced labor in polysilicon production,” adding, “Our government cannot sit idly by.”

The actions announced on Thursday could create diplomatic and economic ripples.
China is the dominant global producer of polysilicon, a raw material that most solar panels use to absorb energy from sunlight, and Xinjiang has over the past decade risen as the country’s main production base for the material. Xinjiang makes about 45% of the world’s polysilicon, according to InfoLink, a renewable energy research company.

The import ban focuses on one company and not all polysilicon products from Xinjiang, but it could roil the market for solar panels in the United States. Hoshine and its subsidiaries supply at least some metallurgical-grade silicon to the world’s eight largest polysilicon producers, which together account for 90% of the global market, according to Johannes Bernreuter, a polysilicon market analyst at Bernreuter Research.

Some analysts said the move on Thursday could be a prelude to further restrictions. “In our view, today’s action may only be the first step toward broader limits” on solar products from Xinjiang, Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, wrote in a research note.

The Biden administration has pursued a strategy of pressing the Chinese government on areas of contention, such as Xinjiang, while seeking to cooperate on global priorities like climate change. The ban on importing some solar energy products — important for reducing fossil fuel use — will test how far Beijing is willing to go along with that bifurcated approach, and the Chinese government may hit back through its growing arsenal of retaliatory powers.

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, suggested earlier this week that Beijing could retaliate against a possible ban on polysilicon imports from Xinjiang, though he did not specify what form that could take. Asked again on Thursday before the Biden administration’s actions were announced in Washington, Zhao said the United States wanted “turmoil in Xinjiang to contain China’s development.”

“The U.S. is using lies as its basis,” he said at a regular news conference in Beijing. “This act not only violates international trade rules and economic principles, it is also damaging global industry and supply chains.”

©2019 New York Times News Service