Rick Haglund: Michigan Republicans show hostility to China after courting companies for years

April 22, 2023 5:49 am

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) speaks with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder during a meeting at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound on August 1, 2017 in Beijing, China. | Wu Hong – Pool/Getty Images

There are hundreds of Chinese companies employing tens of thousands of workers in Michigan, partially a result of aggressive efforts by Republican leaders over the past decade to bring them here.

GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder led a record eight trade missions to China during his eight years as governor. His last trip, a weeklong journey to the Middle Kingdom in 2018, came even as President Donald Trump was waging a trade war against the country.

“These missions are proof that productive dialog and cooperation with other nations ensure we are partners rather than competitors,” Snyder said at the time.

China’s economy was opening to the world. As the country grew more powerful, there was a widespread view that Americans needed to be better prepared to succeed in a global economy that would be dominated by China and the United States.

L. Brooks Patterson

Former Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, a prominent Republican who died in 2019, was among those who believed young people at least needed to speak China’s dominant language. In 2007, Patterson called for Oakland to become the first American county to teach Mandarin in all its public schools. 

During Snyder’s tenure, Chinese companies invested $1.21 billion in the state and created 6,304 jobs. Today there are 269 Chinese companies operating in Michigan that employ about 32,450 workers, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The Snyder administration even created a “Michigan/China Week” to celebrate economic ties between the state and China.

But there’s been a stunning fracture between the U.S. and China over a variety of issues, including President Xi Jinping’s reassertion of state control over many Chinese companies, the country’s growing aggressiveness toward U.S.-backed Taiwan and Chinese spy balloons flying over U.S. military installations.

Michigan Republicans’ position on China has gone from engagement to outward hostility.

Laughably, the state GOP is blaming Democrats for what it says was their collusion with China and “globalist organizations” that “abandoned Detroit and the working class.”

Now, the party says, “their eyes are on Michigan. On this current path, Michigan will become the global headquarters for communist influence and power, and drive Michigan into a deeper depression.” (Bet you didn’t know Michigan was in a depression.)

The controversy is playing out in two electric vehicle battery projects in the state. 

Ford Motor Co. is building a $3.5 billion battery plant in Marshall, licensing battery technology from Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL), a Chinese company that’s the world’s largest battery maker. Ford’s investment is being supported by $1.7 billion in state and local investment incentives.

And Chinese battery maker Gotion Inc. wants to build a $2.3 billion battery factory in a rural location near Big Rapids. The state on Thursday approved giving Gotion $175 million from the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund to aid in the plant’s construction.

Together, those plants are expected to employ more than 4,500 workers.

During GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure, Chinese companies invested $1.21 billion in the state and created 6,304 jobs. Today there are 269 Chinese companies operating in Michigan that employ about 32,450 workers, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

But Republicans in Congress are trying to prevent Ford from receiving billions of dollars in federal Inflation Reduction Act tax credits, designed to help automakers produce batteries and electric vehicles domestically.

Missouri U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, wrote a letter on April 18 to Ford CEO Jim Farley, alleging the company could be exploiting a loophole in the act regarding “countries of concern” receiving battery credits. Others, including Senators Marco Rubio and Joe Manchin, a Democrat who often acts like a Republican, have also criticized the deal.

Farley has said the factory will be wholly owned by Ford, and CATL will not benefit from the tax credits.

Republican Michigan lawmakers claim the Gotion plant, which is slated to be built in Mecosta County’s Green Township, is a front for that nation’s Communist Party and poses a serious, but unspecified national security threat.

Gotion executive Chuck Thelen vigorously denied such claims in a recent virtual townhall meeting about the factory. 

“I’m slated to be the plant manager, and I can assure you, I’m not a communist,” he said.

The state Senate Appropriations Committee voted 10-9 Thursday to transfer $175 million to the SOAR Fund for the Gotion project. All 10 yes votes came from Democrats, but three more Dems voted with Republicans in opposing the expenditure.

Concern about China’s involvement in the U.S. economy certainly crosses party lines. A new Pew Research survey found 83% of Americans have a negative view of China. About 40% of Americans see China as an enemy rather than a partner or competitor.

The Ford Motor Company world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Automakers are rapidly ramping up production of electric vehicles as governments around the world set emission standards that will result in the demise of the internal combustion engine. 

The problem for U.S. automakers is that they won’t be able to meet those standards for at least a few years without using Chinese-made battery materials and technology.

China, which started investing in electric vehicles decades ago,  last year controlled 56% of the global battery market and produced most of the materials needed to make them.

But not a single Republican in Congress voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers lucrative incentives for U.S. automakers to eventually end their reliance on China.

Makes you wonder which side the GOP is on, doesn’t it?


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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.