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A new report from Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom found that Chinese companies in the solar supply chain in Xinjiang are using Uyghur workers from government-forced labor programs.
The report is part of a growing body of evidence of human rights abuses associated with the production of solar materials in China.
Co-authors Nyrola Elimä and Laura Murphy focused on the solar industry because one key component of solar panels called polysilicon is made in Xinjiang.
Companies in the region produce 45% of the world's polysilicon, which is then shipped around the world as a key component of solar panels made elsewhere, said Murphy, a human rights researcher.
Johannes Bernreuter, a global market researcher on polysilicon, describes it as the “heart of a solar panel.”
“Basically all solar panels in the end are contaminated by forced labor in Xinjiang."
“Basically, all solar panels, in the end, are contaminated by forced labor in Xinjiang,” he said.
Growing awareness about these forced labor practices prompted import bans from the Biden administration last month that targeted the largest manufacturers in the region.
At least nine companies in the solar supply chain in Xinjiang were linked to forced labor in that UK report, but Bernreuter said that parts of all solar panels — even the ones made in the US — can be traced back to China.
Five of the largest companies in Xinjiang were contacted for this story, and none of them responded.
A forced labor system
Elimä, who researches supply chains in Xinjiang, grew up in the region but now lives in Sweden.
She said that as part of her research, she examines government documents that contain photos of people trapped within the region’s vast labor program.
While looking, she often finds herself scanning the faces of Uyghur workers, looking to see if she’ll recognize someone she knows — a cousin or a friend.
“So, sometimes when I look at those pictures, I would check whether these people are someone I know or someone I loved, this kind of feeling was always haunting me."
“So, sometimes when I look at those pictures, I would check whether these people are someone I know or someone I loved, this kind of feeling was always haunting me,” Elimä said.
The Chinese government claims the region’s labor programs create more jobs and reduce poverty, but the report asserts that they are part of a forced labor system. Uyghurs who refuse to take part can end up in internment camps or prison.
“If they refuse or don’t actively participate in these programs, they will be marked as extremists, separatists or terrorists,” she said. “Refus[ing] is not an option.”
Murphy, who focuses on modern-day slavery at the Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, said the government system of control in Xinjiang is so vast, it could include up to 2 million people.
“I think the system of forced labor that we see happening in northwestern China right now in the Uyghur region is unprecedented. ... It is organized and facilitated and subsidized and incentivized by the government.”
“I think the system of forced labor that we see happening in northwestern China right now in the Uyghur region is unprecedented,” she said. “It is organized and facilitated and subsidized and incentivized by the government.”
The labor program connects to a network of camps that holds upward of 1 million Uyghurs, according to estimates from scholars and human rights groups. The Chinese government refers to these centers as “reeducation camps.” Other nations, including the US, have called them “concentration camps.”
Murphy said the camps serve as a “backdrop of coercion” that forces Uyghur people into labor programs against their will.
Fighting for Uyghur rights
One of the biggest manufacturers in the region, Hoshine Silicon Industry Co, is named in an order from the Biden administration issued last month that bans imports of the company’s silica products.
“This is a welcoming step,” said Nury Turkel, vice chair at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and longtime activist for Uyghur rights. “This is one of the most effective ways to handle the ongoing forced labor practices.”
Turkel has been fighting for human rights for Uyghurs for more than 20 years, and he said calling out big companies is a good way to put pressure on the Chinese government.
“Two things are very important to the Chinese government. ... One is naming and shaming publicly, calling them out for the ongoing atrocities in the Uyghur homeland, and then two is going after the economic interest.”
“Two things are very important to the Chinese government,” he said. “One is naming and shaming publicly, calling them out for the ongoing atrocities in the Uyghur homeland, and then two is going after the economic interest.”
Activists have called for boycotts of cotton and other consumer items from Xinjiang, but Turkel said it's about time solar energy was added to the list.
“Just focusing on cotton garments ... textile products are not enough,” he said. “This has to be expanded to other areas.”
Nearly 300 solar companies that operate in the US signed a pledge opposing forced labor in the solar supply chain.
Chinese officials have repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
“The US uses human rights as a disguise to do all it could to cripple the industrial development in Xinjiang,” said government spokesman Lijian Zhao, speaking through a translator. “What it does is detrimental to people's right to subsistence and development.”
Zhao went on to say that the real goal of the United States is to contain China.
Turkel said if the US wants to work with China to promote renewable energy, it needs to be done in a way that upholds human rights.
“We need to upgrade our infrastructure. We need to save the planet,” he said. “At the same time, Uyghur lives are as important as the environment that we try to protect.”