BY LEE VAN DER VOO
A racially charged holiday greeting is fanning the flames of a trade dispute in the solar industry, one that already has business leaders and others feeling touchy.
Sent to overseas associates, the card features a wish-list of top priorities for SolarWorld, with hopes like “job creation” and “safe warranties” dashed by a shrugging Chinese man in a Santa suit.
The image of the toothy Chinese man with a somewhat Grinch-like palor prompted Ocean Yuan, founder of Eugene-based Grape Solar, to express outrage.
In a Jan. 17 letter to Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Yuan urged the duo to cut ties with SolarWorld. He said the Oregon Democrats should be “embarrassed and outraged by this blatantly racist card and disgraceful caricature attack on the Chinese” because both supported SolarWorld’s trade petition to the Department of Commerce.
SolarWorld’s Ben Santarris, in a statement on the company’s website, said the card was distributed by SolarWorld AG, the German parent company of SolarWorld Industries America Inc., which is based in Hillsboro.
“SolarWorld Industries America Inc. wishes to express its sincere apology to anyone who received an inappropriate and insensitive holiday card,” he said, indicating business contacts in Europe predominantly received an entirely different card sent by the American subsidiary.
The apology hasn’t been made personally to Yuan, who said he received the card after it was forwarded by a supplier. “I was shocked to see that,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
He has plans to circulate the image around Asian-American communities in major cities and the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus Wednesday, barring response from Merkley or Wyden.
Grape Solar and SolarWorld are on opposite sides of a debate about Chinese subsidies in the solar market. SolarWorld is leading a coalition asking for tariffs on Chinese imports, arguing China’s subsidies to its solar manufacturers are allowing the companies to dump solar cells on the U.S. market for less than the price of making them. Grape Solar is a major distributor of solar panels and among those that argue Chinese components are essential to keeping solar costs low and encouraging adoption of solar technology.
Wyden and Merkley have issued this joint 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 is right to apologize. 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 American workers losing their jobs because of unfair trade practices.”
Lee van der Voo is a contributing writer for Oregon Business.