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Are solar panels built by slaves in China?

Evidence says yes, and Republicans in Congress want answers

By Suzanne Downing

September 11, 2022

Congressional Republicans want to know if the federal government is purchasing solar panels from China that were built using slave labor.

Lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General raising the alarm about the issue, which has come increasingly into the spotlight as the Biden administration pushes the U.S. toward renewable energy sources, a market that China dominates. Republicans note it is illegal for the U.S. to purchase or import goods made in China by forced labor.

China dominates the global solar panel production, with 78% of the solar cells produced in 2019 made in by communist China. Production of solar modules and polysilicon production is is also dominated by China — 72% and 66%.

According to a 2021 report in the New York Times, these solar products for Americans are indeed coming from forced labor.

“In a flat, arid expanse of China’s far west Xinjiang region, a solar technology company welcomed laborers from a rural area 650 miles away, preparing to put them to work at GCL-Poly, the world’s second-largest maker of polysilicon.

“The workers, members of the region’s Uighur minority, attended a class in etiquette as they prepared for their new lives in the solar industry, which prides itself as a model of clean, responsible growth. GCL-Poly promoted the housing and training it offered its new recruits in photographs and statements to the local news media,” according to the New York Times.

“But researchers and human rights experts say those positive images may conceal a more troubling reality — the persecution of one of China’s most vulnerable ethnic groups. According to a report by the consultancy Horizon Advisory, Xinjiang’s rising solar energy technology sector is connected to a broad program of assigned labor in China, including methods that fit well-documented patterns of forced labor,” the Times reported.

U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio and Republicans on the House Oversight Committee raised questions about China’s notorious human rights violations and why U.S. taxpayers would support unethical practices and enrich one of the U.S.’ greatest rivals.

“If we are not vigilant in our efforts to ensure that no solar panels or components made with slave labor are being purchased with federal dollars from FEMA or other U.S. agencies and used on similar solar projects, it is possible the United States could be directly funding the genocide and abuse occurring in China’s Xinjiang region,” the letter said.

Addressed to IG Joseph Cuffari, the letter says that almost 85% of the world’s solar components are made in China. For example, 40% of polysilicon, a necessary solar panel component, comes from the Xinjiang region, which is known for its enslavement of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim group that has been forced into internment camps in China.

“As members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, we are writing today to express serious concern about the possibility of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funds being used to enrich China, an adversary with a record of human rights abuses and slave labor,” the letter said. “According to the U.S. Department of State, genocide and slave labor in the Xinjiang region of China are being actively perpetrated against the Uyghur minority.”

The lawmakers pointed to recently passed legislation to prevent these kinds of purchases.

“As you know, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) was signed into law in December 2021 to prevent the U.S. purchase or importation of goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China,” the letter said. “We strongly support the UFLPA but remain troubled the United States may still possibly be using taxpayer dollars to purchase products manufactured using slave labor in direct violation of the UFLPA…”

The lawmaker’s letter directly asks the IG to investigate. They also point to federal funds spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on power grids.

“Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the federal government committed nearly $8 billion to assist with disaster relief in the [U.S. Virgin Islands], with almost $5 billion of those dollars coming from FEMA,” the letter said. “A large sum of the disaster relief funds was allocated to bolster and rebuild the USVI’s energy grid, making it more reliable and resistant to future storms. Additionally, the USVI announced in 2021 that a new 28-megawatt solar micro-grid project on St. Croix was awarded $4.4 million from FEMA for the initial phase of construction while USVI officials expect FEMA to fund the bulk of the remaining $129 million project cost.”

The federal government increasingly using taxpayer dollars to fund solar panel research and production in the name of fending off climate change, but that investment has come with geopolitical implications.

“Major solar companies including GCL-Poly, East Hope Group, Daqo New Energy, Xinte Energy and Jinko Solar are named in the report as bearing signs of using some forced labor, according to Horizon Advisory, which specializes in Chinese-language research. Though many details remain unclear, those signs include accepting workers transferred with the help of the Chinese government from certain parts of Xinjiang, and having laborers undergo ‘military-style’ training that may be aimed at instilling loyalty to China and the Communist Party,” the New York Times reported.

“This territory-wide transition to solar power will potentially serve to massively enrich China,” the Republican congressional representatives said in their letter.


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