SolarWorld AG holiday card has "Santa Flaws"

The SolarWorld AG holiday card—which prominently features an Asian Santa Claus with a sly grin and a Fu Manchu mustache on his face, as well as a shrugging lack of concern in his body language—offers a "Wish list 2012" that, among other things, hopes for: Best price, Highest quality, Safe warranties, Local service, Clean production, Social standards, and German jobs and job creation.

The card is the latest sally in an industry war of words that has reverberated over several continents and spurred a government investigation in the United States. It also has sparked a backlash in the Sino-American community, led by Ocean Yuan— founder of Grape Solar of Eugene, Oregon, which is a major distributor of solar panels made from Chinese components.

Yuan, a proud American citizen, naturalized some 20 years ago, was born in Hangzhou, China, just outside Shanghai; and still has parents, a brother, and two sisters living in his former hometown. He was aghast when he received a copy of the card from a European colleague.

"This is an outrage," he told pv magazine, adding, "I am not usually an activist, but in this instance, I knew that somebody had to stand up and demand that SolarWorld stop its demeaning and offensive comments."

And that’s what he did—sending a letter of complaint to officials in Washington, as well as Asia-Pacific and human rights organizations, saying, "I would urge you to immediately disassociate yourselves from SolarWorld’s efforts, in view of SolarWorld’s outrageous and racist tactics."

He characterized the card as a "mean-spirited caricature of a Chinese person dressed in a Santa Claus outfit — [made] in an effort to diminish Chinese solar cell manufacturing while praising SolarWorld’s German products."

The tension in the solar industry started last October, when seven U.S. solar cell companies —led by SolarWorld Industries America, a subsidiary of Bonn-based SolarWorld AG— filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the United States International Trade Committee , alleging that Chinese companies received illegal financial backing from their government and sold solar panels below-cost in the U.S. market. The seven American manufacturers of crystalline silicon solar cells and modules are now joined under the banner of The Coalition of American Solar Manufacturing (CASM).

The United States International Trade Commission (USITC) voted unanimously (6-0) on December 2, to go forward with an investigation into whether "dumped and subsidized" imports from China have materially injured the U.S. domestic solar industry. The vote means that the USITC and the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) are proceeding with parallel probes into whether punitive steps should be taken against the nation’s second-largest trade partner. Trade between China and the United States will likely exceed USD400 billion in 2011.

Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, received the letter from Yuan Ocean, and together expressed their concern to pv magazine in a prepared statement: "We absolutely condemn the card SolarWorld AG sent to its European clients. There can be no debate that it is inappropriate and offensive, and SolarWorld AG [should] apologize," they commented, adding, "The trade complaint filed by SolarWorld USA—which had no part in creating and distributing this card—should be judged on its merits. To do otherwise would be unfair to the Americans workers losing their jobs because of unfair trade practices."

Both Wyden and Merkley have supported SolarWorld’s Hillsboro, Oregon-based U.S. division in its attempt to seek a trade action against Chinese rivals.

Indeed, that very rivalry is "demonizing China’s economy and the Chinese people" right now, according to Tom Hayashi, Interim Executive Director, of the OCA (previously, the Organization of Chinese Americans), which supports a broad pan-Asian membership in the United States. In an interview with PV Magazine, Hayashi said that, although he would not ordinarily comment on actions taken outside the United States, he is weighing in now because SolarWorld has a subsidiary in America and also is contracting with the U.S. federal and state governments.

Hayashi also said, "SolarWorld’s behavior is something that folks who monitor for discrimination would not take kindly. We are making our opinion known because we are concerned about how Asia-Pacific island employees of SolarWorld—as well as their customers—may feel about this type of behavior. Customers could—and should—be concerned with good reason, because no corporate citizen should be putting out xenophobic messaging to make a competitor look bad."

Meanwhile, SolarWorld has begun backpedaling instead of backstabbing. SolarWorld Industries America’s Public Affairs Manager Ben Santarris provided a message he hoped would mollify the opposition: "Our pro-diversity and anti-harassment employment policies and programs are just parts of our ongoing active efforts to embrace and celebrate the diversity of our company and our world."

Milan Nitzschke, vice president, SolarWorld AG, stated, "SolarWorld AG apologizes for any offense that may have been caused by a holiday card that was distributed by SolarWorld AG to a limited number of recipients in Europe. SolarWorld AG honors and respects the full diversity of the world’s population, including the people of China. SolarWorld Industries America Inc. did not approve, use, or distribute the card in any way."

Finally, the U.S. investigation grinds onward. Although results of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s preliminary countervailing duty investigation were to be released on January 12, Tim Truman, communications manager at the DOC, told pv magazine that the agency has extended the date of its preliminary ruling to February 14. The preliminary antidumping duty determination is scheduled to be announced on March 22, 2012