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Democrats Call Out Biden Administration on Solar Companies with Ties to Uyghur Forced Labor
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Democrats Call Out Biden Administration on Solar Companies with Ties to Uyghur Forced Labor

Plus: How the president's own party is reacting to his meeting with the Saudi crown prince.

Happy Friday.

Lawmakers Press Biden on Forced Labor

If you read our 80-page story about the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act recently, you’re familiar with just how sweeping the bill is, and just how impactful it could be in America’s trading relationship with China. If you haven’t read the story, I’ll summarize one major aspect of it for the purposes of today’s newsletter: Last year, Congress passed America’s most meaningful response to China’s genocide of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang to date. The bill is aimed at blocking items made with forced labor in Xinjiang from entering American markets, but it is not geographically limited to that region. It also includes language banning products made in part or in whole elsewhere in China if they are connected to China’s forced labor transfer schemes. These mass transfers of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities out of Xinjiang to other parts of China to work have already tainted major global supply chains, and they’re only ramping up.

To enforce the ban, the forced labor bill requires administration agencies to compile a list of entities involved in the transfer schemes. When the legislation went into effect last month, the list that Customs and Border Protection issued was fairly cursory—including groups that have been implicated for a while but not expanding the list much beyond entities that had already faced scrutiny from the American government. Lawmakers and staff anticipate that the list will continue to grow as the bill’s enforcement task force carries out investigations and receives information from researchers and human rights groups. 

This is the next big frontier in enforcing the law. Members of Congress are already making it clear that they’re keeping tabs on this list, and they won’t let lax enforcement slide.

A group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security this week urging administration officials to expand the list to cover solar companies they say should have been included from the start.

In their letter, the lawmakers asked for more information “regarding some noteworthy omissions” to the list. They pointed to reports implicating JinkoSolar, Xinte Energy, and Longi Solar in using forced labor. These include both material sourcing from Xinjiang and public information indicating TBEA Co., the parent company of Xinte Energy, accepted as many as 300 workers from the city Hotan as part of its participation in Xinjiang labor transfers.

The members of Congress inquired why these companies are not on the forced labor implementation entity list and what criteria the task force—chaired by DHS and including representatives from several other executive agencies—used to create the list. They also explicitly recognized the challenges Democrats face in prioritizing climate concerns while the solar industry is heavily tied to human rights abuses in China.

“We recognize the increasing importance solar energy will assume in reducing future greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change,” they wrote. “However, this recognition, along with the relative under-diversification of the solar industry’s supply chain, cannot cause the U.S. to compromise on values as fundamental as our commitment to upholding human rights. Doing so will result in the [Chinese Communist Party] profiting off gross human rights abuses.”

Those who signed the letter include Reps. Tom Suozzi, Tim Ryan, Marcy Kaptur, Mike Doyle, Bill Pascrell, Stephanie Murphy, and Brendan Boyle.

Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, told The Dispatch there are two important ways to view the letter. One: Substantively, he said, House Democrats are zeroing in on a potential loophole in enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

Two: “Politically, it’s a big deal that congressional Democrats are calling out the Biden administration publicly,” Sobolik added. “It’s also significant that these representatives single out the tension with the climate change agenda. A lot of credit goes to Senator Jeff Merkley, who took this stand back in December.”

In an interview for The Dispatch’s history of the forced labor bill, Merkley emphasized the need to elevate human rights even if it can complicate climate efforts.

“I did not see this as an irresolvable conflict,” he said of the Biden administration’s concerns about solar supply chains. “It’s fair to say any administration has people who have a range of ideas and thoughts, and some folks within the administration really felt like this bill would be damaging for our efforts on climate. So I was trying to push back and say, ‘No, no. You all can address this successfully, and it’s essential for American leadership in the world, for who we are and our values, that we not import products tainted by slave labor.’”

“The administration, again, has diverse voices that were wrestling with this dynamic, but I saw my role as to say, ‘If one has to come before the other, it’s human rights,’” Merkley continued. “And second of all, you can take proactive action to develop solar panels from elsewhere.”

Checking in With the Hill: Biden’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

If there’s a theme for today’s newsletter, it’s definitely how policy makers are handling the clash between human rights concerns and energy priorities. My colleague Harvest spent time on Capitol Hill this week catching up with lawmakers about President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East—and his visit to Saudi Arabia today:

When then-candidate Joe Biden was on the presidential campaign trail, he swore to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” on the world stage. Today, the two will meet in person.

The meeting is the last leg of his trip to the Middle East that included a visit to Israel, the West Bank and Palestine. It comes as Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has strained global energy supplies. In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Biden emphasized the geopolitical realities behind the trip, pointing to essential global trade routes, energy resources, and the need for cooperation to reduce the likelihood of violent extremist movements. He also acknowledged the human rights questions at play. Saudi Arabia has a dismal human rights record, one that has prompted members of Biden’s party in Congress to push in recent months for a stronger line against the Saudi government. He acknowledged those who disagree with his trip to Saudi Arabia. But, he wrote: 

As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure. We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world. To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them, and when I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday, my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values.

Lawmakers this week cautioned that warming relations with the kingdom could send the wrong message if humanitarian concerns are left out of the discussion. Others were more frank: They said they would have warned against it.

“If I were advising him, I would urge him not to go,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who has advocated for a tougher approach to the country. He called the Saudi government’s human rights record “particularly atrocious.”

“I hope that human rights is a central part of the discussion,” McGovern told The Dispatch. “There are lots of political prisoners, not to mention the fact that the Crown Prince was responsible for the murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post journalist. But you know, I am somebody who believes that human rights ought to be the centerpiece of our foreign policy.”

And Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, said he doesn’t “love the message it sends.”

Progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal was also skeptical. 

“Diplomatic engagement is a really good thing, even with people that we have massive disagreements with,” she told The Dispatch. “But I’m not sure that the signal of the president who said that we would make Saudi Arabia a pariah nation during the campaign now going in what feels like a bit of a hat-in-hand begging on the oil supply is a good thing.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said that Biden needs to meet with Saudi officials, but he should not meet with prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“That’s my strong belief,” he told The Dispatch. “I would not meet with MBS. The guy still has blood on his hands from the murder of a Washington Post journalist who lived in Virginia who has family in Virginia. There hasn’t been accountability for it. The big battle in the world right now—look at Ukraine. The Ukrainian illegal invasion by Russia is between authoritarians and democracies. And I think President Biden has done a good job of rallying democracies around Ukraine, and I think meeting with a dictator who killed the journalist … I don’t get it.”

Others were less disturbed by the trip.

When asked about the meeting, Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson answered: “Nothing wrong with talking.”

Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham sounded a similar note, saying he didn’t mind the meeting but would “certainly bring up human rights issues.”

Utah GOP. Sen. Mitt Romney said it is appropriate for a president “to travel to countries throughout the world, whether they’re friends or not friends, and to express our point of view and to tell them what we think would enable them to be fully in our good graces.”

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who once went on a Middle East trip with Romney, said he believes the trip is worthwhile, “but only if we’re getting significant concessions from the Saudis on political prisoners and the war in Yemen.”

“It’s the President’s prerogative to meet with any world leader he sees fit, but the U.S.-Saudi relationship needs a pretty significant rethink right now,” he said.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.