SolarWorld weighs legal action following alleged Chinese spy attack

Germany’s SolarWorld is considering damage claims against China following an announcement by U.S. authorities that five Chinese military officers had been indicted for computer hacking, economic espionage and other offenses directed at six U.S. companies.

In addition to SolarWorld’s U.S. division in Hillsboro, Oregon, other alleged victims include Toshiba-owned nuclear energy group Westinghouse Electric Co.; United States Steel Corp.; metals company Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI); the United Steelworkers (USW) labor union; and aluminum giant Alcoa Inc.

According to Bloomberg, SolarWorld lawyers are investigating damage claims following the announcement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The indictment further notes that in 2012, at about the same time the U.S. Commerce Department found that Chinese solar product manufacturers had dumped products into the country at prices below fair value, the accused officers allegedly stole thousands of files including information about SolarWorld’s cash flow, manufacturing metrics, production line information, costs and privileged attorney-client communications relating to ongoing trade litigation, among other things.

"Such information would have enabled a Chinese competitor to target SolarWorld’s business operations aggressively from a variety of angles," the FBI said.

Speaking to Bloomberg, SolarWorld CEO Frank Asbeck added, "On the one hand, this is a big honor and nod to our excellent technology that part of the Chinese competition seems to deem it necessary to spy on us. On the other hand, it’s a criminal act to steal what we are developing with a lot of money."

SolarWorld has led an aggressive campaign in the U.S. and European Union against Chinese dumping of crystalline silicon photovoltaic products that has resulted in legal victories on both sides of the Atlantic for the company headquartered in Bonn, Germany.

Chinese government officials have vehemently rebuked the charges as "based on deliberately fabricated facts" and "ulterior motives."

In a statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: "The Chinese government, the Chinese military and their relevant personnel have never engaged or participated in cyber theft of trade secrets. The U.S. accusation against Chinese personnel is purely ungrounded with ulterior motives."

European solar lobby group EU ProSun, headed by SolarWorld’s marketing and communications chief Milan Nitzschke, said on Monday that the "massive attacks by Chinese military personnel" occurred in the context of the anti-dumping investigation against Chinese solar firms and were directed against SolarWorld as the lead plaintiff in the inquiry.

EU ProSun noted that other companies that accused China of unfair dumping practices, including steel companies, became targets of Chinese cyber attacks. "Apparently, China has been trying to specifically damage companies that are fighting for their right to fair competition."

Nitzchke added: "China is unfortunately still not a serious trading partner, but behaves like a criminal who tries by all illegal means to displace Western competitors. It will take much time before China comes to the realization that growth is only possible through fair trade relations. It’s therefore all the more important that the EU and the United States use all means to prevent illegal Chinese activities."

The EU ProSun president called on Europe to examine and enforce its current anti-dumping measures and added that “industrial espionage must be sharply punished."