Gotion, the U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese EV battery maker, planned to build a factory in Michigan, a state that has welcomed Chinese investment for decades. But that was before tensions between Washington and Beijing escalated and now the project’s local opponents say their fight to stop the enterprise is not over despite local and state go-aheads.
At stake are 2,350 jobs generated by a $2.34 billion investment that many see as a way to secure the economic future of Green Charter Township, a rural enclave just over a three-hour drive northwest from Detroit, the auto industry hub.
Fueling the local passions are objections to a U.S. company with Chinese affiliations setting up shop some 100 miles from a National Guard base, a distrust that mirrors the current state of U.S.-China relations, and suspicions that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have an office in the plant, a rumor that a top Gotion executive denied at an April meeting at a local high school.
“Has the Communist Party penetrated this company? No,” said Chuck Thelen, Gotion’s vice president of North American operations, according to a report on the meeting from MLive, a local news outlet. “There is no [such] communist plot within Gotion.”
Thelen also attempted to ease environmental concerns over the 715,000 gallons of water a day the plant will use in manufacturing produce cathodes and anodes for EV batteries.
“The water that we use never even comes in contact with the materials we process. If you get these materials wet, you destroy the material,” Thelen said, according to the news report. “So, no, we will not be pumping materials, minerals or chemicals into the water.”
These concerns and others appear to be overshadowing Michigan and China’s three-decade auto-based relationship. An estimated $460 billion has flowed between them over those 30 years, according to the Rhodium Group’s China investment monitor, which gathers data by each state in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2020, China invested about $175 billion in Michigan.
When asked for comment by VOA Mandarin, Gotion, which has its U.S. headquarters in Silicon Valley, declined.
Lori Brock is one of the residents fighting Gotion, citing environmental concerns.
Recently, she and the others blocked the company’s purchase of agricultural land adjacent to its previously purchased holdings of 270 acres. She told "Fox & Friends First" on Monday, “We're going to still continue to fight them every step of the way. We don't want them here.”
In April, Michigan awarded the project a $715 million incentive package, including a 30-year tax break valued at $540 million and two grants totaling $175 million, according to MLive. Gotion’s tax breaks came from locating in a so-called Renaissance Zone, a state-designated area that is “virtually tax free for any business or resident presently in or moving to a zone.”
All this was to support a project billed as creating jobs with average wages of what local residents said recently would be $24.50 per hour. The Associated Press reported in April that Gotion planned to pay $29.42 per hour.
In June, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews foreign investments for national security risks, concluded that Gotion's purchase of land for an EV battery plant wasn’t a security issue.
On August 1, Gotion, the U.S. subsidiary of the Chinese battery company Gotion High Tech Co. Ltd., received authorization from Green Charter Township to set up a plant.
Leaders of Green Charter Township, which is a self-governing entity of 3,000 people within the Michigan city of Big Rapids, hope that Gotion's investment will drive economic development. The median household income for the township is $53,882, according to 2020 U.S. Census data, which is lower than Michigan’s median income of $64,392 and the U.S. national median of $76,521.
Jim Chapman is the township’s supervisor, an office roughly equivalent to mayor. He’s optimistic about the local returns on Gotion’s investment but understands change, such as putting a factory among the fields, “is hard for a lot of people.”
The fifth-generation Green Charter Township resident told VOA Mandarin in a filmed interview that Gotion's arrival will be “an opportunity of multiple generations.”
“I hope my grandchildren will have the opportunity to stay here, to spend more time with their children, to have supper with their family,” Chapman said.
He added, “The investment will have the multiplier effect. It’s good for local business. They will hire more people. Ferris State University will see more students.”
The Gotion site is adjacent to an airport in Big Rapids and about 100 miles south of Camp Grayling. According to a Wall Street Journal report citing unnamed sources, the U.S. National Guard base is used for training military personnel from Taiwan, a self-governing island China considers its own territory. Taiwan is a focal point of Beijing-Washington tensions.
After incidents such as the Chinese spy balloon that drifted across the continental U.S. for a week before being shot down on February 5, some residents told VOA Mandarin they are wary of China's intentions given the nearby military base and the CCP’s threat to U.S. national security in general.
Corri Riebow owns a small business and lives in Green Charter Township. Prior to an August 9 evening meeting, she told VOA Mandarin: “I’m concerned about the Chinese ties, not because of the Chinese people, but because of the Chinese government, the things I researched about them.”
The meeting was a candidate forum attended by five people interested in running for office in the township. All oppose the Gotion plant.
Riebow also had another objection: “Even if they were an American company, I don’t want to live three miles away from a factory.”
Brock's 150-acre farm in Green Charter Township is less than a mile from Gotion's approved site. Her biggest concern is the plant’s possible environmental impact.
"Let them set up a plant in a heavy industrial area like Detroit,” she said. “This is rural America, it's all farmland."
Chapman said the Gotion investment is “money spent here. And [if] we turn it down, it’ll be another 20 years before we see anybody wanting to even think about coming to our community. Why would they? Why would they spend all that money, all that effort, all that time to come here, when the last people that went through that were turned down? They won’t. They’ll walk away.”
Chapman said the state will conduct an environmental safety review of Gotion in August and September. If the environmental review is approved, Gotion could begin construction of the plant next year and start production in two years, he said.
The problem, he believes, is that “they [the protesters] don’t know the procedure of doing things. You have to approve the plan first, then start the environmental investigation.”
Chapman said although Gotion's Chinese background makes residents skeptical, the company “is registered in the U.S.A. It’s not led by the Chinese Communist Party. … I didn’t see anything about Gotion’s connection with the CCP that worries me.
“I’m not happy with the CCP either. What they do scares me,” he said. “But should we transfer what we feel about the CCP to the Gotion project? I don’t think so.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Green Charter Township.