A proposed Gotion plant has ‘turned neighbors and friends into enemies’

Anti-China rhetoric over the electric vehicle battery facility endangers Asian Americans, civil rights advocates say

By: - Sunday June 25, 2023 3:00 am

A proposed Gotion plant has ‘turned neighbors and friends into enemies’

Anti-China rhetoric over the electric vehicle battery facility endangers Asian Americans, civil rights advocates say

By: - 3:00 am

The site in Mecosta County where a Gotion electric vehicle battery plant is slated to go. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Economic Development Corporation

The site in Mecosta County where a Gotion electric vehicle battery plant is slated to go. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Economic Development Corporation

Updated 10:51 a.m., 6/26/23

The hundreds of acres where Gotion Inc. is planning to build a $2.36 billion electric vehicle battery component plant in Mecosta County is, in these early summer days, an expanse of green fields, blue sky and two-lane roads that lead to a divided community.

In this rural county dotted by lakes, a place where about 18% of its approximately 40,000 residents live in poverty, the Gotion plant that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called “the biggest ever economic development project in northern Michigan” has pitted longtime friends against one another and left local leaders to wonder when, or even if, the community will be able to heal from the animosity some residents said has spread like a wildfire.

“It’s turned neighbors and friends into enemies,” Mecosta County Commissioner Randy Vetter, a Republican, said of the proposal to build the battery plant in Green Charter Township just outside of Big Rapids, a small city about 60 miles north of Grand Rapids.

The story of the fallout over the plant owned by the California-based Gotion — a manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles that has a parent company, Guoxuan High-tech Co., that’s headquartered in China — is, Vetter said, in part, one about a place where people are worried about change, of what will happen to the only community where many residents have ever lived once a massive new development arrives.

The Gotion project, which landed its final batch of state funding in April and is slated to receive about $800 million in state incentives, is expected to create about 2,350 jobs with an average hourly wage of $29.42, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). Gotion company officials have said the plant, which will be situated just outside of Big Rapids, is expected to begin operating in 2025.

A rendering of the Gotion electric vehicle battery plant that is planned for Mecosta County. | Image courtesy of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation

“I mentioned to a friend of mine who’s opposed to the plan – he’s one of these hometown boys who’s a business owner – I told him, ‘You’d love to see this community stay the same as it is until the day you die,’” said Vetter, whose board in February unanimously voted to approve a resolution supporting the Gotion project. “But if this community doesn’t grow, it’s going to wither up and blow away. It won’t be here in 25 years, because it can’t survive without some growth.

“Luckily, the town has had Ferris State [University] as an anchor for a lot of good jobs. Right now, that’s the biggest industry in the town, the college, and those students in there create a lot of commerce for the local business owners,” continued Vetter, who described the Gotion project as being “economically gangbusters for the area.”

It’s not solely the hesitation to embrace a different economic landscape that’s cleaving the community, however. 

The anti-China language that some right-wing politicians at the state and national levels have used around Gotion, which has been further amplified by national and Michigan-based right-wing media, is instigating fear in a rural community that has reported being divided roughly 50-50 over the project, political experts and civil rights experts told the Advance

That rhetoric largely originated with former GOP gubernatorial nominee and right-wing commentator Tudor Dixon during her 2022 campaign and centers around the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) using the Gotion plant as a way to gain political and financial control in Michigan.

“We are truly bringing in a company that has its corporate ties in China,” Dixon said during an Oct. 1 Breitbart Radio program – which preceded Whitmer officially announcing plans for the Gotion plant on Oct. 5.  “This is where they come from. They’re a Chinese company. They incorporated a leg of their business into California. And they’re like, oh, this is now an American company. This is not an American company. This is a Chinese company. And you and I both know how China works.”

A spokesperson for Dixon, Sara Broadwater, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

The anti-China rhetoric, which has been condemned by a number of Republican officials in Mecosta County, has gone on to echo throughout right-wing media. (The Ballenger Report published a story in May with the headline, “Chinese invade Michigan politics,” for example). And it’s been a staple of local GOP chapters outside of the Big Rapids area — like the Muskegon Republican Party, which has repeatedly used inflammatory anti-China language in a bid to bring protesters to the Big Rapids area — and protests that some local officials have accused of being largely attended by people who do not live in the community. 

Further, the rhetoric, which originated outside of the community where Gotion is slated to go and is creating wedges within that area, is endangering Asian Americans who have experienced a rise in hate crimes against them during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly feel unsafe living in the United States, political experts and civil rights leaders said.

“The impact of this racist rhetoric, it makes Chinese Michiganders and other Asian Michiganders more vulnerable to hate crimes and discrimination,” said Poppy Sias-Hernandez, who Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed as her office’s first-ever chief equity and inclusion officer. She also serves as the executive director of the Office of Global Michigan, which aims to “empower and engage the immigrant, refugee and international community,” according to its website.

Poppy Sias-Hernandez, Michigan’s chief equity and inclusion officer and the executive director of the Office of Global Michigan | Courtesy photo

“That’s really sad for our state that people live here and don’t understand the contributions of Asians in our state,” Sias-Hernandez continued.

There are, political experts pointed out, geopolitical realities regarding the growing tension between the governments of the United States and China.

There’s a deep distrust between the two countries’ governments that has led to accusations of espionage from both nations – the detection and downing of a so-called Chinese spy balloon floating over the United States earlier this year, for example, prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February to cancel the first trip to China by the United States’ top diplomat since 2018. (That balloon also resulted in the Montana’s Republican-led state Legislature to become the first state to ban the popular social media app TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.) 

Blinken would go on to visit China in June, a move meant to thaw the countries’ increasingly icy relations. The countries’ relationship has remained complicated; a day after the secretary of state met Chinese President Xi Jinping, Democratic President Joe Biden called Xi a “dictator.”

This distrust has also led to each country targeting companies from the other. China, for example, recently banned the American chipmaker Micron Technology, alleging it’s a danger to Chinese citizens, while the Biden administration last month announced it pulled a $200 million grant to a battery manufacturer over its ties with China. 

“Nationally, across both [U.S. political] parties, there’s a lot more concern about China and the Chinese government and the CCP, and that’s totally warranted given what’s happened internally in China and what the [Chinese] government is doing with the Xinjiang internment camps, the much more abrasive and risky military posture in the South China Sea, and the crackdown in Hong Kong with civil rights. China’s not a good actor,” said Mary Gallagher, an expert on Chinese politics and a comparative politics and political science professor at the University of Michigan.

However, political experts said the idea that the CCP would use the Gotion plant as a way to infiltrate Michigan and hold political and financial influence here, as politicians like Dixon and Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo have said, is simply not true.

“There are American laws and regulations,” Gallagher said. “A Chinese company has to abide by our labor and environmental laws; they’re much stricter than in China.

Gotion’s board is one-third German, one-third American and one-third Chinese. The German-based Volkswagen Group owns about 26% of the company.

Gallagher noted that “when you see what’s happening in places like Texas or Florida, the laws targeting China, that leads to a discrimination and hate crimes.”

She is referring to an influx of Republican-led state legislatures, as in Texas and Florida, that have passed or pushed for anti-China laws in the wake of growing distrust between China and the U.S. and an anti-China sentiment that soared as former President Donald Trump repeatedly employed racist and xenophobic language during the pandemic, including calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who’s running for president in 2024, in May signed Senate Bill 264, which bars Chinese citizens from purchasing some farmland in the state. In Texas, Senate Bill 147 would also ban Chinese citizens from buying land, and House Bill 4736 would keep universities from admitting Chinese, Iranian, North Korean, and Russian citizens. Both of the Texas bills remain in legislative committees.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Michigan but is unlikely to be passed in a Democratic-led Legislature. State Sen. Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe) in April introduced Senate Bill 260 to prevent foreign governments from purchasing farmland.

If this community doesn’t grow, it’s going to wither up and blow away. It won’t be here in 25 years because it can’t survive without some growth.

– Mecosta County Commissioner Randy Vetter

“To defend our independence and our freedoms, we must protect our land from the influence of the Chinese Communist Party — starting with our farmland,” Bellino said in an April press release.

Bellino’s bill, which has one co-sponsor – Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), another vehement critic of the Gotion plant over its ties to China – remains in the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee.

All of this, Gallagher said, translates to a conversation around Gotion that is rooted in the current political climate but lacks a nuanced understanding about China. Instead, civil rights experts said, it relies on inflammatory and often xenophobic language pushed by right-wing politicians. In turn, those experts told the Advance, that drives wedges between people and leaves in its wake a trail of fear and anger.

“There were problems, and those problems were important; that’s why the Biden administration hasn’t entirely rejected the Trump policies – the tariffs [on Chinese imports] are still there,” Gallagher said. “We have limits on access to American technology for Chinese companies we think might be used for military use and could threaten national security. But the way those concerns have been articulated has not separated out the Chinese government from the people of China or Chinese Americans who are citizens and should be treated as such.”

For example, Dixon’s anti-China rhetoric that she heavily employed during her gubernatorial campaign and has continued to amplify on the right-wing media that has been beating the anti-China drum, like Fox News, Gallagher said, points to a “new strand of the Republican Party that’s much more isolationist, anti-free trade and anti-China.”

“I think people have lost strategic vision for how we continue to be a global economic power with China in the world,” Gallagher continued. “Just because Tudor Dixon doesn’t like the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t get rid of China on the global stage. With electric vehicles, Chinese companies, including Gotion, are at the forefront, and Michigan needs that kind of investment for us to stay competitive as the industry changes pretty dramatically.”

Republican nominee for Michigan governor Tudor Dixon campaigns in Lansing on Aug. 27, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

A political shift around Gotion

Gotion originally landed bipartisan support among state lawmakers when Whitmer announced plans for the plant in October 2022, with some Republicans championing the idea it would be an economic boon in a rural area that has long struggled with poverty. 

The rhetoric around Gotion, however, began to shift as Dixon became one of the first politicians to launch claims that Gotion is tied to the CCP in an effort to pressure Whitmer and local leaders to back out of the deal. 

Dixon’s attacks came just before the November 2022 election in which Whitmer landed a double-digit victory against Dixon and Democrats reclaimed the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years.

As Whitmer first announced plans for the Gotion project last year, the Michigan House and Senate, which were then GOP-controlled, approved hundreds of millions of dollars for a state fund meant to support large-scale economic development projects in the state, such as Gotion. The Senate voted 25-8 to approve $846.1 million for the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund, which the governor and the Legislature launched in December 2021. The House approved the measure 76-28.

Dixon immediately criticized Whitmer over those votes. 

“Why is Gretchen backing China over her own country?” Dixon tweeted after the Legislature passed the SOAR funding. “Can she assure us there will be no influence from the CCP?”

Dixon also launched an ad campaign in the fall of 2022 that focused on attacking the Gotion deal.

As the gubernatorial candidate escalated her anti-China rhetoric, that language made its way into protests against the plant; other right-wing politicians like Karamo have routinely used anti-China rhetoric during community protests.

“To think they [China] will set up a battery factory in our state and they will just play by the rules, that makes no sense whatsoever,” Karamo said during an April protest in Mecosta County that was attended by U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland). That protest included video messages from former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Cella, who co-founded the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2004, and right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, who has also criticized the Gotion plant on social media.

Republican nominee for secretary of state Kristina Karamo speaks at a rally with gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon and former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in Southfield, Mich. on Oct. 29, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Other residents have echoed these concerns.

Cheryl Vitito, a Big Rapids resident, told the Senate Appropriations Committee in April that “this CCP-controlled company represents Communism and is a threat to our way of life and our God-given and constitutional freedoms. We don’t want the CCP here by way of the Gotion plant as they have no regard for the value and dignity of human life. … We are setting up a base for spies in our own backyard.”

State Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare), whose district includes the proposed Gotion site, at first supported the project, but said he changed his position around the beginning of the year.

“When I learned about the project, it was, ‘Great, I love the idea,’” Kunse said. “I loved the idea of jobs. I thought it would be good for the community. I was all for it. I didn’t like the idea it would change the fabric of Big Rapids, but I thought we could digest it.”

Since then, however, Kunse said his thinking regarding Gotion has changed due to concerns regarding the CCP.

Kunse emphasized that he does not want the anti-China sentiment around Gotion to translate to violence or other problems for Chinese immigrants or Asian Americans. 

“Big Rapids is an amazing, welcoming community; it’s a help-your-neighbor, good Midwestern town,” Kunse said. “We’re going to be examples of a welcoming community.

Rep. Tom Kunse | Michigan House photo

“I hope and pray people do understand this is not your enemy,” Kunse continued. “The Communist Party is your enemy.” 

He also doesn’t believe that the arrival of the Gotion plant will result in any kind of communist infiltration in Michigan – rather, he believes it wrongly sends a message of support for the CCP.

“I don’t think they’re going to start taking over Big Rapids High School,” Kunse said. “Is this a security issue? I don’t know.

“They’re going to come here, and they’re going to follow our rules,” he continued. “They won’t have a private police force or anything like that. But these are not good people, the Communist Party. I have no problem with the people of China.”

Other local elected officials said the sentiment around China is largely being pushed by people outside of their community, and the pro-Gotion faction is, according to Mecosta County Board of Commissioners Chair Jerrilynn Strong, a “silent majority.”

“You have heard from a small but vocal group of opponents, along with a group of people I call professional picketers – all of them think they speak for our community; they do not,” Strong, a Republican, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee in April.

Strong said the majority of her constituents who support the Gotion plant have been “reluctant to show strong public support for the battery component plant because some of those who have spoken up have received threats against themselves, their families and their businesses.

“This is a great opportunity for the people in Mecosta County and the surrounding area,” Strong continued. “The direct economic boost will stretch from Grand Rapids to Cadillac and Scottville to Mount Pleasant. … Our community needs this growth.”

Green Charter Township Supervisor Jim Chapman, a Republican, echoed similar sentiments. He said many of those who have spoken out against the Gotion plant have included many individuals from out of town.

“We’ve been able to determine that roughly 25% of the people coming to our [Green Charter Township government] meetings are township residents, about 25% are from Mecosta County, and most of the rest of them have to use Google Maps to even be able to find us.”

Chapman went on to say, “the facts have to win” and “this is a good opportunity for our residents.”

Gotion company’s officials have also tried to quell the community’s fears.

“Despite what any current politicians might say, there is no communist plot within Gotion,” Chuck Thelen, the company’s vice president for North American operations, said during a community meeting in April. That meeting was forced to go virtual out of safety concerns.

Just before that meeting, the Muskegon Republican Party, sent an email on March 30 with the subject line, “Ground Zero: The Communist Take-Over in Michigan.” It encouraged people to travel to Big Rapids for what was then expected to be an in-person meeting.

“The CCP is a known and sworn enemy of the United States,” the email from the Muskegon GOP stated. “So why would we be so naive [sic] as to allow our enemy to conduct business on our land and profit off from us?”

Despite what any current politicians might say, there is no Communist plot within Gotion.

– Chuck Thelen, the company’s vice president for North American operations

The email goes on to say Biden is “bought and paid for by the CCP” and is “an ally to the One World Order clan.” 

The Muskegon GOP uses “one world order” and “new world order” interchangeably in its email. “New world order” is a term used to refer to a right-wing conspiracy theory that became popular among anti-government extremists in the 1990s and espouses the idea that a tyrannical cabal of elites is working behind the scenes to orchestrate global events to enslave the world population.

Thelen wrote in a recent Detroit News op-ed that he has “proudly worked for Gotion for more than three years” and meets “weekly with our national and global leaders.

“I have never heard anyone discuss any communist ideology. Ever,” Thelen wrote. “No one has ever discussed communism, and no one in leadership has ever referenced a pro-communist position or directive.”

The company also notes in a 34-page “transparency document” that Gotion “voluntarily submitted information to a U.S. treasury department panel” to review the project.

Earlier in June, Gotion officials issued a statement saying the project will continue to move forward after the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment, a panel that assesses national security risks from foreign investments, found that Gotion’s purchase of land in Mecosta County for the EV plant does not fall within its jurisdiction.

The site in Mecosta County where a Gotion electric vehicle battery plant is slated to go. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Economic Development Corporation

Michigan’s long, bipartisan history with China

Jeff Timmer, a one-time executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who is a senior advisor to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and is pushing to create a new centrist political party in Michigan, said the anti-China rhetoric from Michigan Republicans represents a significant shift in the party and is “all xenophobic bullsh–t.” 

That shift, he said, can be largely tied to Trump.

“Since Trump got elected in 2016, the Republicans have operated with … their darkest impulses; it’s not just anti-China – it’s anti-Asian, anti-Black, anti-Brown,” Timmer said. “The overt racism that’s manifested itself in the Republican Party and become mainstream is abominable. It’s disgusting, anti-American and racist. They’re trafficking in racism and exploiting it for political benefit.”

He noted that companies having connections to China is not new in Michigan, and state Republicans and Democrats alike have long pursued economic relations with China. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who held office from 2011 through 2019, led eight trade missions to China during his tenure – the most of any Michigan governor. 

Today, there are 269 Chinese companies operating in Michigan that employ about 32,450 workers, according to the MEDC. 

In addition to the Gotion project, Ford is building a $3.5 billion battery plant in Marshall, licensing battery technology from Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd., 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.

In a press release issued in September 2018, the MEDC noted that Snyder met with 35 Chinese companies interested in investing in Michigan during his final trade mission.

“These missions are proof that productive dialogue and cooperation with other nations ensure we are partners rather than competitors,” Snyder said in that press release. 

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

“The complete and utter partisanship that the Republicans are injecting into economic development issues that used to be bipartisan – that is a fairly recent phenomenon,” Timmer said. “They’re opposed to this because Whitmer might gain.

“If the jobs don’t go to Big Rapids, they’re going to go to Indiana or Ohio or somewhere else,” Timmer continued. “Who stands to benefit economically from Michigan’s loss and convincing people in Michigan that they’d be better off with jobs going elsewhere?”

That is a message the Whitmer administration has voiced time and again: The Gotion plant is a business deal that creates jobs in an area that has for too long felt the weight of poverty. 

While local Republican officials like Vetter, Strong and Chapman agree that Gotion will create much-needed jobs, other GOP lawmakers disagree.

“How much wealth does it take to create those jobs?” Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) said. “It takes the wealth away from the taxpayers and redistributes it to this one company. Of course it’s going to, quote, create jobs. But it’s taking the wealth from everyone else to go to one elite company.

“If we want to have the corporate elite taking money from the middle class … that’s not a process I believe in,” Carra continued. “We need to get back to the basics and understand what government is doing with these big corporations is having a very negative impact. We need to trust free markets, get away from central planning and having less of corporations getting special deals from the government.”

State Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) at a Macomb County Trump rally, Oct. 1, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Carra pointed out that there’s never been a full vote of the Michigan Legislature with regards to specific funding for Gotion. The full Legislature has voted on funding for SOAR, but it was only the Senate Appropriations Committee that voted for the $175 million for the Gotion project. The development is also expected to receive about $636 million in tax abatements over the next 30 years.

Carra said that goes against the state constitution. Article 4, Section 30 of the Michigan constitution states that the “assent of two-thirds of the members elected to and serving in each house of the legislature shall be required for the appropriation of public money or property for local or private purposes.”

“Giving hundreds of millions of dollars to one specific company is a private purpose,” Carra said.

Other Republican state lawmakers, like Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Twp.) and House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) have not invoked anti-China sentiment around Gotion, but raised questions about its environmental impact and about the amount of state funding being given to the project. Nesbitt and Hall did not respond to requests for comment. 

Nesbitt and Hall were part of a group of Senate and House Republicans who in June sent a letter to MEDC CEO Quentin Messer requesting additional information about the project’s environmental impact. In May, lawmakers asked the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to release all documents regarding the potential environmental impact of Gotion. 

In response, EGLE Acting Director Aaron Keatley wrote to lawmakers that EGLE “has not received any permit applications or other requests for activities at this site, including for items mentioned in your letter like water withdrawals, soil assessments, or geotechnical evaluations.”  

“Serious environmental questions have been raised and gone unanswered as this controversial project continues to be pushed forward with the backing of the governor’s administration, and now we have learned the state’s environmental regulator has no information about the project,” Nesbitt said in a June press release.

One major environmental concern Hall and Nesbitt cited was the 715,000 gallons of water that the Gotion plant expects to use daily. In its “transparency document,” Gotion said that is the “start-up amount” and expects that number to decrease. 

GOP lawmakers have also called for a variety of investigations into Gotion, including Kunse and Reps. Bryan Posthumus (R-Cannon Twp.), who called foul at the beginning of May over the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) looking into a complaint filed against the Majestic Friesians Horse Farm in Green Charter Township, which hosted an anti-Gotion protest in April. Lori Brock, the owner of the horse farm, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

That request for an investigation into MDARD by the House Committee on Ethics and Oversight landed extensive media attention but was soon retracted by the Republican lawmakers, according to Rep. Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn), who chairs the committee.

“[Kunse] told me they’d been in touch with MDARD, and their understanding was MDARD was following their standard procedure after receiving a complaint; they’re required by law to investigate a complaint within seven days of receiving it,” Byrnes said.

The House Oversight Committee also looked into the matter and came to the same conclusion as Kunse: MDARD had received a complaint about the farm and was legally bound to investigate it; there was no abuse of power on the part of MDARD. 

MDARD spokesperson Jennifer Holton said its investigation into the complaint that alleged the farm was causing manure run-off into tributaries of the Muskegon River ended after “the complaint wasn’t verified during inspection.”

If the jobs don’t go to Big Rapids, they’re going to go to Indiana or Ohio or somewhere else. Who stands to benefit economically from Michigan’s loss and convincing people in Michigan that they’d be better off with jobs going elsewhere?

– Jeff Timmer, a one-time executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who is a senior advisor to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project

Some Democrats, including Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), have also raised concerns over Gotion.

Irwin, who voted against securing $175 million in state funding for Gotion, in April told the Advance that he’s “concerned about the pay and benefits of the jobs we are seeking to subsidize.” In other words, he said the pay and benefits should be greater than they currently are.

The Ann Arbor lawmaker also emphasized he does not share their GOP colleagues’ concerns about China but rather about Gotion paying high enough wages for jobs subsidized by the state government. Irwin said in the same April interview that the “xenophobic approach championed by the Michigan Republican Party … did not play into” his vote against the state providing $175 million for the project.

Some of the loudest anti-Gotion voices have been Michigan’s Republican Congressional members. U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, whose district includes the Gotion site; U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Twp.), U.S. Rep. John James (R-Farmington Hills), and former U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Holland) – who was heavily criticized for employing anti-Asian racism in a 2012 campaign ad when he was running against U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) – have, for example, repeatedly used anti-China rhetoric when talking about Gotion.

“I stand here today in strong opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover of a town in my home state of Michigan,” McClain said in a speech on the U.S. House floor last month. “The CCP is using one of their state-controlled companies to implant thousands of Chinese workers and billions worth of Chinese technology just outside of Big Rapids. … I’m not standing idly by and going to let this happen.”

McClain and James did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for Moolenaar did not answer specific questions sent by the Advance but pointed the publication to a statement about Gotion on the congressman’s website and an op-ed published in the Detroit News.

“To take millions of dollars from Michigan taxpayers and give it to a subsidiary of a company that pledges allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party is a historic mistake by the Michigan Legislature,” Moolenaar said after the Michigan Senate Appropriations Committee in April approved $175 million for the Gotion plant.

McClain’s accusation that “thousands” of Chinese workers will be taking the jobs at the Gotion plant is untrue, according to local and state officials. In a document provided to the Advance, the MEDC said Gotion will partner with Ferris State University, which is based in Big Rapids, to “assist with the talent recruitment and training the company will need to place 2,350 well-paying jobs in Mecosta County.” 

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain | Allison R. Donahue

In recent months, Ferris State has been accused of offering a home to workers from China for the Gotion project – something its administrators said is unequivocally false. 

Ferris State University President Bill Pink said in a video posted to the school’s website in March that his institution has had no conversations regarding workers from China coming to Michigan for the Gotion project.

“As president of this university, I can tell you that no one from that company has had a conversation with me asking Ferris State University to house anyone on this campus,” Pink said in the video.

Ferris State Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Bobby Fleischman said the same and explained the school will be preparing its students to work in the electric vehicle industry.

“We have an MEDC grant that gives us an opportunity to study, research and work together on lithium ion battery manufacturing, as well as the environmental impacts and the recycling of batteries in a safe, environmentally friendly way,” Fleischman said. “We’re preparing students to go to work in the electric vehicle battery space.”

A Republican candidate for president has also weighed in. Vivek Ramaswamy told MLive in May that he would prohibit companies like Gotion from investing in the U.S. He also said U.S. companies should be banned from doing business in China.

‘That places a target on Asian Americans’

For Peggy Du – a Chinese American Michigander who Whitmer recently appointed to serve on the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and the executive director of the Association of Chinese Americans, a nonprofit that operates in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties – the political rhetoric around Gotion is deeply frustrating. 

Peggy Du, a member of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and the executive director of the Association of Chinese Americans | Courtesy photo

“There are a lot of rumors about China; that adds emotion to Chinese American people,” Du said in reference to Gotion. “With Gotion, we will see it brings a great opportunity to Michigan.”

Jasmine Rivera, the co-executive director of Rising Voices, a Michigan nonprofit that works to organize and develop the leadership of Asian American women, said the “constant presence of rhetoric that is condemning China and using China as this entity of evil that has been the source of the pandemic and is supposedly infiltrating our state, that places a target on Asian Americans.

“We’ve had a rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence during the pandemic; in Michigan, many legislators and electeds have not hesitated to partake in that to score political points,” Rivera said. “[GOP former Michigan Senate Majority Leader] Mike Shirkey – he called [COVID] the ‘Chinese kung flu’ and was very unapologetic about it.”

Rivera went on to say that some right-wing politicians are using anti-China language to “rile up a base and score cheap points by scapegoating and picking on other populations.”

“That’s the function of convenient scapegoating – creating an atmosphere of fear that people can unite around,” Rivera continued. “With Tudor Dixon and Kristina Karamo, they’re saying this is an infiltration of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s an old and worn tactic of trying to take Asian Americans and conflate them with the government of their home countries. That  puts them in a category of suspicious foreigner or the enemy. The ‘yellow peril’ has existed for way too long in this country, and this [the language around Gotion] is a form of that.”

Karamo did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“Yellow peril” is a reference to a racist concept that emerged in the U.S. in the 1800s, when white political leaders framed China and Chinese immigrants as a threat to the United States.

Numerous civil rights advocates emphasized that the anti-China rhetoric being used around Gotion emanates from a long history of Anti-Asian bigotry in the United States. They pointed to the Chinese Exclusion Act that the U.S. Congress first passed in 1882 to ban Chinese laborers emigrating to the U.S. – a move that followed an increase of immigrants from China, thousands of whom built the U.S. railroads that were key to the country’s economic growth. That legislation was not repealed until 1943.

Kurtis Fernandez, the field director at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote – Michigan, a nonprofit that works to empower the Asian American community, said the anti-China sentiment around Gotion immediately brings to mind memories of Vincent Chin for him.

On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, who was Chinese American, was beaten to death by two white men in Highland Park. Chin was celebrating his bachelor party when witnesses heard one of the attackers say, “It’s because of you motherf–kers that we’re out of work,” a reference to Japanese automotive companies being blamed for outcompeting American automakers. 

Vincent Chin | The Estate of Vincent and Lily Chin photo

“Vincent Chin was killed at a time when there was a lot of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiment,” Fernandez said. 

Rivera said the anti-China rhetoric being used with Gotion is dangerous and could be deadly.

“Anyone associated with that ethnic group or looks like that ethnic group is part of the status of ‘possible enemy,’” Rivera said. “We’ve seen attacks on Asian Americans who are blamed for the pandemic. This [the language around Gotion] endangers Asian Americans even more because it’s creating an atmosphere of fear based on ethnicity.”

Others are less critical of state Republican lawmakers’ rhetoric. State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said she doesn’t believe her GOP colleagues in the Michigan Legislature have “crossed a line” with regards to their rhetoric around Gotion, but she did emphasize it’s “important people are watching the language that they use.

“Words matter, and the way we talk about things matters,” Chang said. “We are still in this climate where there’s a lot of anti-Asian hate.”

Chang pointed to a recently published survey from The Asian American Foundation that found that one in two Asian Americans feel unsafe in the U.S. due to anti-Asian racism.

“We must continue to call out the hate when it’s happening,” Chang said of anti-Asian bigotry.

‘I’d love to see people get good-paying jobs’

As the Gotion project moves forward, Vetter hopes the Mecosta County community can someday move away from the vitriolic Facebook posts about Gotion and into a space where people are working jobs that can support families in an area that’s long struggled with poverty.

“I’d love to see people get good-paying jobs, spend their money in town and create secondary and tertiary jobs, whether that’s restaurants or whatever,” he said. 

MEDC leaders vowed the Gotion plant will do just that.

“This project builds off of what’s a rich heritage of manufacturing in the Big Rapids community and allows the community to move forward,” said Josh Hundt, the executive vice president of strategic accounts and chief compliance officer at MEDC. “This brings thousands of newly-created family wage sustaining jobs in the Big Rapids community that will allow local residents to work at this facility instead of having to travel to other locations.” 

The impact of this racist rhetoric, it makes Chinese Michiganders and other Asian Michiganders more vulnerable to hate crimes and discrimination.

– Poppy Sias-Hernandez, Michigan’s chief equity and inclusion officer and executive director of the Office of Global Michigan

For Hundt, the Gotion project is slated to have a “major impact on a lot of different aspects of the economy,” including “bringing more economic activity to the community, which allows for a better opportunity for main street and other small businesses to thrive.”

Otie McKinley, the media and communications manager for MEDC, said the Gotion plant will help to “bring the global industry supply chain back to the U.S. and Michigan” and will “reduce our reliance on foreign manufacturing.”

These ideas are ones that Vetter appreciates but knows are far more easily digested in spaces outside of a community embroiled in tension – and he’s not expecting the anger over Gotion to disappear any time soon. The chasm that now splits his home is far from narrowing, let alone closing.

“It’s sad that all of this had to be aired and deliberated and argued on Facebook and the internet; people have forgotten how to communicate and sit across the table from one another and humanely debate a situation,” he said. 

“As it stands right now, I’m disgusted in humanity and its inability to act like adults, openly discuss things and try to resolve them, or at least see one another’s side,” Vetter said. “The air of mistrust has gotten out of control. It’s a sad thing.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct details about former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Cella’s involvement in an April protest against Gotion; he sent a video message for the protest but did not attend the event in person. The story incorrectly stated that he co-founded the National Prayer Breakfast; he co-founded the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.