Anger over Fufeng Group raises concerns, questions in Grand Forks
Fears about China also come as anti-Asian sentiments increase around the country — closely linked to COVID-19 and its origins in China.
GRAND FORKS – While Katie Dachtler was at a March 7 City Council meeting, she got a text from her teenage daughter, who was sitting in the audience, watching the meeting unfold.
Some were angry about Fufeng Group, the company behind the proposed corn-milling plant, and its connections to China. Things were getting heated, and the City Council member’s daughter, 14, was getting nervous.
“They are kinda scary,” Dachtler’s daughter wrote in the text. “They would see us as Chinese, wouldn’t they?”
Dachtler, who is Korean-American, reassured her daughter that she was safe, sitting next to people who knew her and cared about her.
The teenager texted back that she knew. “It still hurts though,” she wrote.
For months, one of the constant concerns about Fufeng Group — and the corn mill the company wants to build on Grand Forks’ northern edge through an American subsidiary — has been the company’s connection to China. The group’s physical headquarters are there, the company’s chairman has been active in local Chinese politics, and some critics are uneasy watching a company connected to an international rival arrive in Grand Forks.
The Herald investigated those concerns in January, finding that China’s agricultural economy is already tightly intertwined with that of the United States. An American expert on Chinese business relations said the company’s leadership serving with the country’s Communist Party isn’t concerning — just a sign that a businessman knows how to play politics.
More recently, a Herald question to officials at Grand Forks Air Force Base asking if there are concerns about the plant’s proximity — an issue raised repeatedly in recent months — went unanswered by the Department of Defense.
But the worries about China have been constant. Some residents have speculated the American subsidiary behind the plant will bring in hundreds of Chinese workers to run the facility. One woman, addressing a March 7 City Council meeting, declined to give her address out of apparent fear that a communist fifth column might kill her.
“You people want to bring communist China to Grand Forks,” she told council members. “They kill people in communist China who say where they live, who do anything the state doesn’t want. And I don’t want to be killed. So you people are scaring the heck out of me.”
The intense fear of a Chinese corn-milling plant — built in the U.S. and paying North Dakota-based jobs in Grand Forks’ economy — has been baffling to some City Council members, who are at a loss to explain how an agricultural facility could put residents at risk of political assassination, or somehow import communist ideals.
“This will be American workers buying American corn, selling mainly to American companies,” City Council Bret Weber said that same evening. He compared theories about China’s reach into Grand Forks — via the corn-milling plant — to “Hogan’s Heroes,” the 1960s sitcom portraying Nazi-held prisoners of war who mount a resistance from a detention camp.
“Occupants were kind of able to control all of Germany from the tunnel they dug under their cots,” Weber said. “It’s a very funny show. But the idea that the entire security of the future of the United States is hinging on the decision of seven council members from a city of less than 100,000 (people) — if that were the case, we’d have a whole lot more to worry about than the development of a plant.”
Dachtler has opposed the project, voting against the approval of a recent development deal with Fufeng Group on the grounds that northern Grand Forks residents have not had adequate time to understand how it will affect them or their neighborhoods.
But she said the complaints and concerns have at times been difficult to hear. She is adopted, raised by white parents in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Despite her upbringing in the U.S., she said she’s been made keenly aware of her race throughout her life. She recalls that, when she won her election, a local media personality suggested her heritage was the reason.
And fears about China also come as anti-Asian sentiments increase around the country — closely linked to COVID-19 and its origins in China. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism noted earlier this year that anti-Asian crime grew by 339% from 2020 to 2021, NBC News reports , as suspected hate crimes overall grew 11%.
“It's very difficult for people to separate the Chinese government and its operations from Chinese people, or people that look similar …” Dachtler said. “People don't make that differentiation. And then, depending on the volatility of the conversation, or the issue at hand, we see people acting out based on that.”
A Fufeng USA official did not respond to a Thursday request for comment.
Some of the rhetoric at City Hall is so overheated that Grand Forks leaders are changing their security measures to account for it. After a Monday, March 14, council meeting, City Council member Ken Vein was followed to his car.
Now, according to a memo circulated by Mayor Brandon Bochenski — obtained this week by the Herald — City Council members will have parking allotted at a nearby location and there will be “a police presence available both when entering and exiting City Hall” during council gatherings. An entrance to the building will be fitted for “keypad entry.”
“The weight is being balanced more to security and less to informality” at City Council meetings, City Administrator Todd Feland said about the memo and coming changes. “And I say that with sadness.”
In a brief interview, Vein confirmed a Herald tipster’s account that he was followed to his car on Monday evening, and that it led to a conversation about more security around City Council meetings. Asked if they were opponents of the Fufeng Group plant, Vein said he assumed they were, but said he is unsure.
“I can't even give you a name,” he said.
Vein offered an initial interview on the topic while he drove across the state on Wednesday evening, but declined to discuss the matter in more detail. On Thursday, he emailed a statement to the Herald.
“I walked out of City Hall to my car in the parking lot,” the statement read. “An individual standing in the entry of City Hall called my name and accompanied me on the sidewalk to my car. While standing by my car, his comments elevated to a level I was not comfortable with so I got in my car and drove off.”
One thorny issue as leaders work with Fufeng is that there are a range of China-related concerns — some of which are more rooted in reality than others. One regular worry is that Fufeng Group, which has a facility through a subsidiary in northwestern China, might be involved in forced labor activities with the exploited ethnic Muslim population in the area — a profoundly concerning situation closely monitored by human rights groups.
Fufeng Group provided the city with a third-party report showing no forced labor violations, which the Herald reviewed, and an expert the Herald spoke with in January said he saw no reason to believe a facility relied on forced labor just because it’s in northwest China. The Wall Street Journal reported in late 2020 , though, that many organizations would no longer audit supply chains in northwest China given a “police-state atmosphere” that made accurate reporting difficult.
Some of the louder comments about China are a headache for Ben Grzadzielewski, an organizer who is gathering signatures to refer the future of Fufeng Group’s plant to a citywide vote. He’s opposed to the new plant for environmental reasons, with significant concerns about water supply — which put him on the same side as some of the people with the loudest anti-China invective.
“I would like to make it clear that I do not support racism or extremism or anyone else pushing that agenda,” he wrote in an email to Dachtler. “The thing that keeps pushing me forward with our petitioning are the level-headed people I meet every day that do not believe this project is the right thing for our town.”
In an interview this week, Grzadzielewski said his method for deciding what China concerns are appropriate is rooted in who, exactly, is the subject of the concern.
“The line would be, when you can't make the distinction between the government and the Chinese people — that’s the line,” he said.
And Dachtler said she has a simple way of telling what’s worth talking about from what’s not: it’s whether people are asking good-faith questions and willing to engage in dialogue.
“(If) there's an actual give-and-take in that conversation to make something better or to inform,” she said, then it’s something City Council leaders can work with. “And then you have people who are showing up, who just are angry and upset, and they're not asking questions. … And I think that those good questions are getting lost in all of the rhetoric and in the sensationalism that's coming forward.”