Whitmer Appoints CEO Who Brought Chinese Battery Company to Michigan to Powerful State Board

Democrats in state have voiced concerns about the Chinese government's infiltration of Michigan

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D.) / Wikimedia Commons
April 28, 2023

Michigan Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer's latest appointee to a powerful state economic board is a nonprofit executive who helped facilitate the deal that brought a controversial Chinese battery company to the Great Lakes State.

Whitmer on Thursday tapped Randy Thelen to serve on the Michigan Strategic Fund, a powerful state board that approves the distribution of public grants and tax breaks to private businesses. Thelen is the CEO of Grand Rapids-based nonprofit The Right Place, which works to drive economic development in western Michigan. With Thelen at the helm, the nonprofit partnered with Chinese battery maker Gotion to help the company acquire land for a western Michigan factory, a controversial project that the state is showering with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

Whitmer's decision to appoint Thelen comes as Michigan residents and elected officials express concern over Gotion's presence in the state. The Chinese battery giant's leader is a known Chinese Communist Party member, and the company's bylaws require Gotion to "carry out party activities in accordance with the Constitution of the Communist Party of China." Gotion's ties to the CCP prompted hundreds of Michiganders to hold a rally last week in opposition to the battery plant, and even Democratic lawmakers have questioned Gotion's Michigan project. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Mich.), for example, acknowledged Tuesday that she's "worried" about the project's national security implications.

"Am I worried about national security implications? I have to tell you that I am," Dingell said during a Fox News appearance. "Let us be clear—if you are a Chinese business, the communist government is part of your business. So it's something that worries me every day."

Just days before Dingell made those comments, Michigan's legislature approved $175 million in state funds to support Gotion, $50 million of which will go to The Right Place to secure "site preparation and land acquisition" for the Chinese company's plant. The Right Place on its website also touts Gotion's Michigan project, with the nonprofit saying in October that it's "honored to have played a role in bringing this transformational project" to the state. As Michiganders protested Gotion in recent weeks, meanwhile, Thelen worked to defend his Chinese partner, arguing during an April 5 meeting with local residents that Gotion would merely become one of many Chinese-owned companies in Michigan.

Thelen is related to Gotion vice president of North American affairs Chuck Thelen. The cousins told Bridge Michigan they did not know each other before they worked on the Gotion deal.

For conservative group Michigan Freedom Fund, Whitmer's willingness to elevate Thelen to an influential state board despite the CEO's work with Gotion "raises concerns about Gov. Whitmer's decision-making and signals her disdain for Michigan residents."

"Rather than making any effort to quell fears of both local and state residents, Whitmer … doubled down," Michigan Freedom Fund spokeswoman Mary Drabik said in a statement. "Appointing Thelen is a clear signal of where the governor's priorities lie: with China and rewarding those who stand to profit from the Gotion deal."

Neither Whitmer nor The Right Place returned requests for comment.

Gotion is not the only Chinese company with impending plans to settle in the Great Lakes State. American auto giant Ford in February announced plans to build a Michigan electric vehicle battery factory in partnership with Chinese battery giant Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Limited (CATL), which will provide technology, equipment, and workers to help build and run the factory. Ford says the factory will nonetheless qualify for lucrative federal subsidies under President Joe Biden's so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which the Democrat said would help the United States "compete with China for the future."

Ford's use of federal funds to partner with CATL has sparked intense criticism from congressional Republicans, with Florida senator Marco Rubio in March unveiling a bill that would block Ford from earning taxpayer dollars through its Chinese partnership.

"Without additional restrictions, Chinese companies will benefit from the subsidies President Joe Biden claimed would spur domestic manufacturing," Rubio said. "Hard-working Americans should not be forced to subsidize Chinese companies that make batteries for electric vehicles that cost more than most people make in a year."