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White House Says U.S. Will Move Away From Goods Made By Forced Labor In Xinjiang

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Biden administration today ordered trade bans on five entities from China. It says they're using forced labor to produce a material widely used in solar panels. The move is part of a broader effort to make sure China does not profit from the repression of ethnic minorities in the far western province of Xinjiang. The aim is to take Xinjiang out of the global supply chain for solar panels, something analysts believe will be very hard to do. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: China's Xinjiang province is home to a bounty of materials that are integral to the world's supply chains - think cotton for clothing, fruits and vegetables and something called polysilicon, which is a key material used in the production of solar panels. Xinjiang is also where the Chinese are carrying out what the U.S. says is genocide against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim groups, including the use of forced labor in its industries, something the Biden administration says it wants to root out.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The United States will not tolerate modern-day slavery in our supply chains.

NORTHAM: That's Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who today announced bans against imports of polysilicon by Hoshine Silicon Industry Company, a giant in the silica industry. The U.S. also placed Hoshine and four other Chinese entities on a trade blacklist. Mayorkas said the order comes after U.S. Customs and Border Patrol determined that workers in Xinjiang were intimidated, threatened, their movements restricted.

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MAYORKAS: Effective immediately, CBP personnel at all U.S. ports of entry will detain shipments that contain silica-based products made wholly or in part by Hoshine.

NORTHAM: The decision to ban a large source of solar panel materials runs headlong into the Biden administration's climate change efforts. Still, Mayorkas says the administration is not going to sacrifice its environmental goals.

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MAYORKAS: We're going to root out forced labor, and we're going to use alternative products that are manufactured and produced legitimately, in keeping with our values and our commitment to a fair marketplace.

NORTHAM: It's likely today's move won't make a huge dent in China's solar power industry. About 45% of the world's supply of polysilicon used in solar panels comes from China. That makes it tough to separate global supply chains from human rights abuses.

CULLEN HENDRIX: China's position in the global economy makes it too big to push around using purely economic levers.

NORTHAM: Cullen Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the U.S. has tried to change human rights practices in places like Iran and North Korea through trade policies and sanctions. He says that won't work with China.

HENDRIX: It's going to require broader thinking to think about some other levers of influence that can be used to name and shame China for these activities. The one that would probably be the most provocative but also the most demonstrative would be a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

NORTHAM: But John Smirnow with the Solar Energy Industries Association says there was already an effort by U.S. companies to find suppliers outside of the Xinjiang region after the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities became clear. He says the industry is now looking for more transparency on sourcing.

JOHN SMIRNOW: We developed a compliance tool, which we've labeled our traceability protocol, that if a company implements the traceability protocol, they should be well positioned to identify where each of the key material inputs used to make a solar panel come from.

NORTHAM: Smirnow says the association is also lobbying hard for federal help to support solar panel manufacturing in the U.S. and cut it loose from China's grip.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATCHING FLIES' "OPALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.