Starkman: Michigan -- China's Gateway to America

March 09, 2023, 11:47 AM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter, blogs at Starkman Approved. This column first appeared on his blog. 

By Eric Starkman

I’ve never met Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, but I know that she heeds the proverb, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

It’s one of the many insights I gleaned this weekend reading up on the Michigan communities Ford and GM plan to grace with their lithium battery manufacturing plants thanks to more than $2 billion in subsidies Whitmer has showered on the ethically challenged companies to build them. I’ve also come to appreciate and fear the brilliance of communist China’s leadership and feel for the thousands of Michiganders of modest economic means who have effectively been disenfranchised.

A good starting point is to talk about the Ford battery plant the automaker plans to build in partnership with a China-based company on nearly 2,000 acres of prime, productive farmland in Calhoun County adjacent to the Kalamazoo River about 100 miles west of Detroit. The area is famous for its historical barns, some painted with colorful murals, visible from its rural roads that traverse active farms, woods and creeks, fields and lakes. Marshall, the area’s county seat, is a major Michigan tourist attraction, with its museums, trendy boutiques, and upscale restaurants.

Anyone claiming to be an environmentalist would consider building a battery plant anywhere near Calhoun County a declaration of war on the planet.

The war reference is apt and deliberate because 26 miles west of Marshall is a military installation known as Fort Custer, which according to its website is used by the Michigan National Guard and other branches of the armed forces, primarily from Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Many Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students from colleges in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana also train at this facility, as well as the FBI, the Michigan State Police, various law enforcement agencies, and the Lansing Community College Truck Driver Training School.

If you want to rely on the good word of Ford, a company that knowingly sold pickup trucks with flimsy roofs that provided inadequate crash protection, cars with shoddy transmissionsallegedly dumped hazardous waste on the homelands of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, rigged some vans to circumvent EPA regulations, and paid $19.2 million to settle allegations that it lied in its advertising, then move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Ford’s Melissa Miller/Twitter photo

“Here’s the truth: Ford alone is investing $3.5 billion in and will own and run the plant. Ford will hire and employ the team that will build these advanced batteries, using technology licensed from (the Chinese battery company) CATL. The batteries will be installed by Ford people into Ford’s breakthrough electric vehicles at Ford plants in North America,” Ford spokesperson Melissa Miller said in an email to the Washington Post.

I’m instinctively wary of a PR person who prefaces her statement with, “Here’s the truth,” particularly one working at Ford or GM. Ford no doubt will own the plant, but it’s going to require managers and workers from China to build it because CATL owns the technology, and China is too savvy to risk losing its IP to Ford, especially given the company’s history allegedly  stealing technology.

CATL will have some formidable challenges adopting its technology for U.S. plant use. In a fascinating recent story about the giant electric battery plant Panasonic built in Nevada on land owned by Tesla, the Wall Street Journal reported that it took the company six years to get operations up to snuff. The Journal cited Yasuaki Takamoto, the head of Panasonic’s EV battery business, for much of its information, which suggests very senior company executives from Japan are involved.

Ford ideally would have preferred to build its battery plant in Virginia, but Governor Glenn Younkin told Ford to take its business elsewhere, ostensibly for national security reasons.

“The structure was CATL and the Chinese Communist Party would have full operational control over the technology,” he said. “I would have loved to have had Ford come to Virginia and build a battery plant if they were not using it as a front for a company that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Glenn Youngkin

The entrenched media dismissed Younkin’s concerns, saying he was just posturing to appeal to conservative Republicans in preparation for a presidential bid. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin has also expressed “grave concerns” about Ford’s deal with CATL, but that hasn’t been widely reported. The entrenched media also noted that there is no documented proof that CATL is controlled by China’s communist leadership, but experts familiar with the country say it would be naïve to think otherwise.

“Anything that is part of the larger industrial complex, the Chinese government has some connection with it,” Mike Toman, a senior fellow of the nonpartisan Resources for the Future, told the publication Roll Call. “These companies don’t just go off on their own and do stuff.”

Xi Jinping, who is possibly China’s leader for life, is on record saying he wants his country to rule the world. Among Xi’s comments are calling on China to lead “the reform of the global governance system” and to disrupt international rules, institutions, and enforcement mechanisms used to solve common global problems.

Here’s what Nicholas Eftimiades, one of the leading authorities on Chinese Intelligence Operations, wrote in October 2020 in a defense publication:

Beijing has evolved to become the world’s first ‘digital authoritarian state’. Its creativity and ability to combine all the elements of ‘societal power,’ including espionage, information control, industrial policy, political and economic coercion, foreign policy, threat of military force, and technological strength challenges the world’s rules-based international order.

The Center for Strategic International Studies documented 160 instances of Chinese espionage in America from 2000 through 2021; the country is known for its savviness penetrating U.S. institutions and organizations. The Washington Post reported in April 2021 that “sophisticated Chinese government hackers are believed to have compromised dozens of U.S. government agencies, defense contractors, financial institutions and other critical sectors.”

“This looks like classic China-based espionage,” cybersecurity expert Charles Carmakal told the Post. “There was theft of intellectual property, project data. We suspect there was data theft that occurred that we won’t ever know about.”

The Wall Street Journal reported today that U.S. officials are growing concerned that giant Chinese-made cranes operating at American ports across the country, including at several used by the military, could give Beijing a possible spying tool.

With these sorts of incidents and concerns, common sense dictates that allowing a Chinese company that’s a critical part of the country’s industrial complex setting up shop in the backyard of a U.S. military training base demonstrates questionable judgment. Moreover, the battery plant will give China other strategic advantages.

According to this September 2019 story in Bridge News, Michigan farms produce more than 300 commodities commercially, making the state second only to California in crop diversity; in 2018 Michigan exported nearly $2 billion in agricultural products, primarily corn, soybeans, dairy products and various feeds. 

According to a briefing document prepared by a group opposed to Ford’s battery plant, U.S. farmland decreased by 1.3 million acres in 2021, and Michigan lost 500 farms. For those who champion the farm-to-table social movement, there can be no farm-to-table restaurants if there are no farms.


China appreciates the value of fertile farmland, which is why they’ve been buying it up all around the world and have made small inroads in America.

As reported by NPR, China owns less than one percent of all foreign-owned U.S. agricultural land as of 2021. But NPR reported that  China’s agricultural investment abroad grew more than tenfold between 2009 and 2016. 

“This is no small amount of food we’re talking about,” South Dakota Republican Rep. Dusty Johnson, a member of a newly formed China-focused Congressional committee, told NPR last week. “In recent years the Chinese Communist Party has increased their holdings of foreign farmland … by 1000%. They own 1,300 agricultural processing facilities outside of China, and that number is growing rapidly.”

In January, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) teamed up with U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) to introduce bipartisan legislation aimed at preventing China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea from investing in, purchasing, leasing or otherwise acquiring U.S. farmland.

“As a third-generation Montana farmer, I’m not going to sit back and let our foreign adversaries weaken our national security by buying up American farmland,” Tester said. “That’s why I’m proud to be joining my friend Senator Rounds on this bipartisan effort to prevent foreign entities from acquiring U.S. farmland and ensure our farmers have a seat at the table when the government makes decisions impacting our national security.”

Residents living in the communities where Ford and GM plan to build their battery plants are understandably alarmed, despite platitudinal assurances like this one from Stephanie Fries, Ford’s regional manager of government relations, who told a public meeting, “Ford takes our responsibility to be a good neighbor seriously. We look forward to learning more about what’s important to the community and becoming part of the fabric of the region.”

If Ford was truly serious about becoming part of the community fabric, they’d call their communist China colleagues and tell them the deal was off.  Local opposition to Ford’s China battery plant is formidable, with overflowing crowds at public meetings. Some serious allegations have been made about how these land deals came together.

Nearby residents of GM’s battery plant in Lansing, a joint venture with LG Energy Solution called Ultium Cells LLC, were also concerned about the environmental risks. The plant won’t be fully operational until 2025.

“We just haven’t been able to get, I guess, real, concrete answers from GM, from Ultium batteries, or from Delta Township,” Nicole Leitch, who lives across the street from the battery plant, told the local television station last October.

Leitch said she reached out to the battery plant and the township supervisor asking what type of chemicals would be used in the plant – but hadn’t received a response.

“They indicate that they are doing everything that they can do to ensure the safety of our water. But they can’t specifically tell us what they’re doing,” Leitch said.

Leitch said U.S Fish and Wildlife informed the community that when living next to a lithium battery plant, residents should have their water tested twice a year. “And not just regular water testing, you have to test for metals and lithium – lithium is extra.”

Mary Ann Wagner, who lives just north of GM’s battery plant, was also alarmed.

“We have been offered, by Ultium and GM, that they’ll come out and power wash our houses every quarter,” Wagner told the television station. “And it’s sort of suspicious that they would offer to do that if there were no concerns about what was in the air. So that was kind of a red flag for us.” 

Of this I’m certain: If Gov. Whitmer dared force a facility requiring residents to test their water twice a year in affluent Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe where top Ford and GM executives live, the project would promptly be abandoned.

Reach the writer at Confidentiality is assured.

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