Voters in a rural township in Michigan sent a message to their leaders Tuesday: Don’t help China.
And that's a potential warning sign for President Joe Biden.
A recall election in Green Charter Township threw out five local Republican officials who had backed tax breaks for a multibillion-dollar battery parts plant tied to a Chinese company — never mind the project’s promises of more than 2,000 jobs for the economically depressed region. That could spell difficulties for Biden, who is counting on a surge of jobs-creating battery plants, electric vehicle factories and other clean energy projects supported by his signature climate law to sway voters next year.
Biden’s GOP critics, including former President Donald Trump, have latched onto the claim that these programs are a giveaway to Beijing, whose companies dominate the global supply chain for green technology. Last month, presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy joined residents opposing the plant in Michigan and centered his message on China
That’s a winning message with some voters in crucial swing states, Tuesday’s outcome suggests — deflating the conventional wisdom that jobs equal inevitable victory at the ballot box.
“The voters’ voices were heard,” said Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), whose district includes the site of the proposed plant in Green Charter Township. “People are in favor of jobs coming into their area, but not when there's a link to the Chinese Communist Party.”
The election is raising concerns even for some Michigan Democrats, who say they have work to do to convince voters that Biden’s policies aren’t benefiting Beijing or other foreign capitals.
“It’s going to be a painful process as we try to reassure folks” that Biden’s manufacturing tax breaks aren’t helping foreign countries, said Rep. Dan Kildee, whose Michigan district is next door to the proposed factory. “Industrial facility exemptions [from taxes] are always difficult. Globalization makes them more difficult.”
Still, even as Democrats acknowledge the pitfalls of Biden’s industrial policies, Kildee and others say they must push ahead with a message that the president’s policies are creating jobs for Americans — the owners of individual factories notwithstanding. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) called the election result a “blip” in the state, but said it underscores the need to compete against China in the race to dominate the energy technologies of the future.
“We want to attract those jobs in Michigan, stay at the forefront of innovation and technology, but we do need to understand what the challenges are,” she said. “And I'm working with everybody — the environmentalists, the White House, the car companies, the unions, so we stay competitive. So we stay at the forefront. I'm not gonna let China win this market.”
The planned factory in Green Charter Township has faced a groundswell of opposition since it was announced last year. The township’s seven-member board approved a tax abatement plan for Gotion Inc., which has also received millions of dollars from the state.
Gotion has repeatedly insisted that the Chinese Communist Party has no presence in the North American company, though it is a subsidiary of Gotion High-tech Co., an international company founded in China. Opponents have pointed to Gotion High-tech documents that include language to “carry out Party activities.”
Tuesday’s vote ousted five of the township board members, all of them Republicans. Its other two members had resigned before the vote.
The Gotion project is just one of a handful of green energy facilities across the U.S. that have sparked GOP ire over use of Chinese technology or links to China-based companies. Two hours to the south, Ford has halted construction of its planned $3.5 billion BlueOval Battery Park Michigan project that has faced similar congressional pushback over its plans to license technology from a Chinese battery maker.
In May, the Energy Department killed a proposed $200 million grant for a Texas-based battery company called Microvast, which had drawn repeated attacks from GOP lawmakers because it has a subsidiary in China. That money would have come from Biden’s bipartisan 2021 infrastructure law.
China provides the bulk of the world’s parts and minerals for electric cars, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, posing a challenge for Biden’s goal of fostering a surge of green energy technologies and slashing the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution.
Biden has promised that over the long term, his policies will create a domestic clean energy supply chain that would lessen U.S. dependence on China. But for now, some developers have found it necessary to use Chinese minerals or tech — giving opponents an opening to pounce.
It’s an argument that Gotion has battled against for months.
Chuck Thelen, Gotion Inc.’s vice president of North American manufacturing, said in a statement Wednesday that the company “does not engage in political posturing.” He added that the company will continue “to steadfastly work to meet our commitment of creating 2,350 jobs in the state of Michigan while communicating factually and transparently with all regulatory organizations.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a longtime critic of Biden’s approach to Beijing, argued Wednesday that companies with Chinese ownership inevitably “follow the directives of the Communist Party” — and that it's impossible for U.S. businesses to compete fairly with them.
“These Chinese companies are subsidized by the Communist Party. They will always be cheaper than anybody else,” Rubio said. “And we're never going to be competitive in any of these fields again, much less self reliant, if we continue to allow them to game the system in this way.”
Moolenaar and GOP Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois recently introduced the “NO GOTION Act” to prohibit companies affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party from receiving green energy production tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act. Gotion is also planning a $2 billion electric vehicle lithium battery manufacturing plant in Illinois.
The bill is co-sponsored by 18 GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the chair of the House’s select China committee.
Gotion has called the bill misleading. Thelen said it would not have any effect on Gotion’s Michigan facility “as we are localizing for the benefit of our valued North American customers and their goal to participate in the IRA credits.”
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has backed the Gotion project. Her press secretary, Stacey LaRouche, on Wednesday pointed to support in the community, as evidenced by votes from local leadership to lock in the investment.
“[R]epublicans have pushed a campaign for months to kill 2,300 jobs in Mecosta County, one of the most economically challenged regions in the state,” she said. “We are not going to get distracted by politics and will continue to work with anyone to bring good-paying jobs to every corner of Michigan."
Many Midwestern Democrats on Capitol Hill echoed that sentiment. Even as they acknowledged the risks of Biden’s clean energy industrial policy, they joined Kildee and Dingell in urging their party to push ahead despite the Gotion factory vote.
“If we spend our time worrying about the way that some tiny little corner of a project could be used against us in the next campaign, we’d never do anything,” said Rep. Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat who works on energy issues. “I just think, do the right thing and then explain to people why you did it.”