President Biden, with the full support of the Democratic Party, has committed this country to defending human rights around the world and addressing climate change. Although these are not competing goals, they are not necessarily reinforcing.
Last week, John Kerry announced plans to visit China to continue carbon emissions negotiations, a task fitting the Biden administration’s designated envoy on climate change. But some Republican lawmakers are demanding to know if Kerry has been quietly lobbying against anti-slave labor legislation in Washington to secure diplomatic breathing room before his climate talks in Beijing.
At issue is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, bipartisan legislation that easily passed the Senate by voice vote in July only to be held up in the House. If signed into law, it would ban the import of any Chinese goods manufactured using forced Uyghur labor. Such a move would further enrage Beijing at a moment when the government there is already bristling from international criticism of China’s mass detentions, forced sterilization and general abuses of its Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region.
In a letter obtained exclusively by RealClearPolitics, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey express concern that Kerry “is downplaying the genocide precisely because he intends to import solar panels that are produced using forced labor in the PRC to the United States in order to meet your administration’s climate goals.”
Human rights advocates have wondered for months whether this is why the popular legislation stalled in the House after sailing through the Senate. According to one account in the Associated Press, Kerry had “a forceful debate” on the question before leaving for China last spring. Rubio and Smith, the top two Republicans on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the lead sponsors of the bill, point to that report as evidence that Kerry is subverting the president’s pledge to put human rights at “the center” of his foreign policy.
Biden has repeatedly condemned Chinese abuse of Uyghur Muslims, first as a candidate and then as president. During the campaign he called it “genocide,” a characterization later echoed officially by his State Department. Biden was barely a month on the job before he directed his Treasury Department to sanction two Chinese government officials over the continued human rights abuses. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the move at the time as a necessary penalty for a regime that “continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.” When that behavior did not improve, the administration went a step further by imposing additional sanctions on the Chinese solar panel industry.
The president seemed to raise the issue during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, albeit indirectly and without singling out China by name. He asked the world to pledge to “uphold human dignity and human rights under which nations in common cause, more than seven decades ago, formed this institution.”
For his purposes, Kerry sees that humanitarian mission as distinct from his climate goal. He said as much during congressional testimony in May, when Rep. Smith asked if he discussed the plight of the Uyghur people with China’s climate envoy. “That’s not my lane,” the former secretary of state replied. “My lane is, very specifically, to try and get the Chinese to move what we need to do with respect to climate itself.”
Yet, Kerry has been frank about the interwoven challenges of crimes against humanity and a deteriorating global climate. “On the one hand, we’re saying to them, ‘You have to do more to help deal with the climate,’” he told reporters earlier this month. “And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned, which makes it harder for them to sell them.”
“They see that as a contradiction,” Kerry said in an interview with the Washington Post after several days of meetings in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. How then, asked Bloomberg’s David Westin in a Wednesday interview, can we determine the correct balance between human rights and the need to address climate change? “Well,” Kerry replied, “life is always full of tough choices and the relationship between nations.” Likening his negotiations with China to the U.S.-Soviet diplomacy of the 1980s, Kerry recalled how President Reagan “thought the Soviet Union was the evil empire” but still forged a treaty with the Soviets to withdraw intermediate nuclear missiles from European soil.
“The point I’m making is that even as there were egregious human rights issues, which Ronald Reagan called them out on it, we have to find a way forward to make the world safer, to protect our countries and act in our interests,” Kerry told Bloomberg. “We can do and must do the same thing now. Yes, we have issues, a number of different issues, but first and foremost, this planet must be protected.”
According to Rubio and Smith, those tradeoffs are “simply unacceptable from a senior U.S. government official.” In their letter, they tell Biden they fear Kerry “is downplaying the genocide precisely because he intends to import solar panels that are produced using forced labor in the PRC to the United States in order to meet your administration’s climate goals.”
“You have repeatedly pledged to put human rights at the center of your administration’s foreign policy. Given this, it is all the more concerning that members of your administration are apparently working against this cause by reportedly trying to delay a bipartisan bill that would hold the CCP accountable for its unspeakable crimes,” the two concluded.
When asked about Kerry’s remarks Monday evening, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told RCP the president’s climate envoy was accurately conveying the fact that the administration has dual priorities in this instance and that the president remains true to both of them. “Where we have concerns, whether it’s their economic approach, whether it’s human rights issues, … we will raise [them] privately and we will also raise publicly,” she said. “But we will also look to work with the Chinese on areas where we can. And obviously, climate is one of them.”
Psaki did not know, however, if Biden supported the bill to ban Chinese goods made with forced labor.