John Kerry, President Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, was recently shown to have invested over $1 million in a Hillhouse China Value Fund LP, a private Chinese equity fund that has a significant stake in at least one solar panel firm implicated in human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang. This revelation comes on the eve of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which is set to begin on October 31st and run through November 12th.
That solar panel company, LONGi Green Energy, sources much of its raw materials by using forced labor from China’s far western Xinjiang province. Hillhouse owns a 6% stake in the firm, more than all but one shareholder, but it also invests in at least one tech company that assists in Beijing’s Orwellian surveillance systems over the Uighur population, according to the Washington Free Beacon. LONGi has also been in talks of purchasing two tech firms blacklisted by the US government.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio called the investments a conflict of interest given Kerry’s role as the President’s climate envoy. Senator Rubio also claimed that Kerry has been lobbying against Rubio’s efforts to prohibit imports from China suspected of using forced labor.
While it is unlikely that Kerry would resign or be replaced in response to these reports, his investments highlight just how deeply connected the American and Chinese economies are.
For decades, American firms and investors have been more than willing to invest in Chinese firms in the hopes of reaping massive profits. The US government, along with state and local governments, has been eager to facilitate these connections with the goal of liberalizing China’s economy and political system. But in the last several years, individuals and institutions in the West have begun to realize that such dreams for China will not come to fruition.
For the Biden Administration, this presents a difficult dilemma. During his campaign for president, Biden emphasized combatting climate change and the primacy of human rights. With China being the largest global polluter, Biden needs China’s cooperation; but China’s assistance is likely to undermine his pledge to defend human rights.
Kerry’s resistance to such proposals as Rubio’s forced labor prohibition suggests that, for the moment, the Biden Administration is placing climate change ahead of human rights in China. In Kerry’s own words:
“On the one hand, we’re saying to [China], ‘You have to do more to help deal with the climate’…. And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned, which makes it harder for them to sell them.”
While threading any needle in foreign affairs is no easy task, Biden and his team can’t afford to let this type of behavior undermine two of his key initiatives. Kerry’s Hillhouse investment is nothing short of an own goal, and in Kerry’s own words, the game clock is close to zero.