The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin says he blocked Ford battery plant on China concerns

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) delivers his State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the Virginia legislature in the House chamber in Richmond on Jan. 11. (John C. Clark/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said this week that he had rejected efforts by Ford Motor Co. to consider locating an electric battery plant in Virginia over concerns that the automaker’s partnership with China created a security risk.

“We felt that the right thing to do was to not recruit Ford as a front for China to America,” Youngkin said Wednesday night to reporters after delivering his State of the Commonwealth speech to the General Assembly.

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Youngkin made the comment in response to questions about a section of his speech that dwelled on the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, which he called “a dictatorial political party that only has one goal: global dominance at the expense of the United States.”

Republicans and Democrats had privately seemed caught off guard by Youngkin’s emphasis on the topic, but the anti-China rhetoric fit with a push by Republicans nationwide to draw a harder line against the country. GOP leaders in Congress have set up a committee to investigate Chinese influence, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who, like Youngkin, is presumed to harbor ambitions to run for president — also called this week for barring China from state affairs.

Youngkin noted during the speech that he banned the Chinese-owned tech services WeChat and TikTok from state-owned smartphones. And he warned that “Virginians also should be wary of Chinese communist intrusion into Virginia’s economy.” He called on the General Assembly to “send me a bill to prohibit dangerous foreign entities tied to the CCP from purchasing Virginia’s farmland.”

DeSantis had made a similar proclamation about farmland on Tuesday.

Youngkin told reporters Wednesday that some of his wariness of doing business with China was tied to his long career at the Carlyle Group, the private equity giant where he stepped down as co-CEO in 2020.

“I think I’m uniquely positioned to understand how the Chinese Communist Party works, because I dealt with it … and I understand what they’re doing,” Youngkin said.

The decision to resist a Ford plant seemed at odds with Youngkin’s goal of attracting more major employers to Virginia, which he emphasized repeatedly in the speech to the General Assembly. His administration provided few specific details this week about the Ford project or the farm threat.

The battery plant involved “national security risk-type technology and he stopped that,” Richard Cullen, Youngkin’s chief legal counsel, said in an interview. “They were looking for land and incentives to build something and I think that was the nucleus” of the evolving concern about farmland, he said.

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Ford was reported in December to be considering construction of a battery plant in partnership with Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology, with Michigan and Virginia mentioned as possible sites. The batteries are central to the car company’s push into electric vehicles.

Later that month, the conservative news site Daily Caller reported that Youngkin was removing Virginia from consideration over concerns that the Chinese company would have control over the primary battery technology.

Youngkin expressed concern in his address to the General Assembly that too much of the electric vehicle industry is reliant on Chinese technology, and called for American companies to step up efforts to compete.

Asked Friday to elaborate on the concerns about Ford, Youngkin spokesman Rob Damschen repeated the governor’s warnings and added via text: “Virginians can be confident that companies with known ties to the CCP won’t receive a leg up from the Commonwealth’s economic incentive packages.”

A spokeswoman for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which handles business recruitment for the state, said the agency’s policies prevent commenting on “unannounced projects.”

Melissa Miller, a Ford spokesperson, said the company can’t comment on specific site selection efforts, adding that work is ongoing to build a possible partnership with the Chinese company to ramp up North American battery production.

Democrats in the legislature said they wanted to get more information about both Ford and the potential for Chinese interests buying agricultural land, but some expressed bewilderment about Youngkin’s statements.

“I had not heard about the governor actively working against bringing a large E.V. battery manufacturer to the commonwealth,” said Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun), former chairman and current member of the Virginia Manufacturing Development Commission.

Reid said such a facility could be “a generational gamechanger” for parts of rural Virginia looking to reestablish lost manufacturing jobs. “And is there any better example of an all-American brand than Ford?” he said.