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Port: Maybe the answer to Fufeng and China should just be 'no'

The threat of Chinese spying is very real. It's not some red scare fever dream.

A pickup truck parked across from City Hall ahead of a City Council meeting displays one view of the proposed Fufeng corn wet milling plant.
A pickup truck parked across from City Hall ahead of a City Council meeting displays one view of the proposed Fufeng corn wet milling plant.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — If there's anything we can learn from the controversy over a Chinese-owned wet corn milling plant to be built near Grand Forks, and near the Grand Forks Air Force Base, is that we need a more rigorous process for this sort of thing that is beyond the scope of local and even state government.

The public has voiced concerns over Fufeng, the company trying to build the facility, and its ties to the communist regime in China.

Can we be assured that Fufeng doesn't used forced labor?

Given the proposed facility's proximity to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, can we be assured that spying isn't part of the intent in building it?

Our federal government has been silent about these concerns, leaving state and local government, which have no capacity to evaluate national security concerns, caught out over a barrel .

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On one hand, Gov. Doug Burgum, as well as local officials such as Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, are right when they say a facility like this would be good for our state. It would "improve the price North Dakota farmers receive for their corn," as Burgum pointed out in a recent letter to Biden administration officials backing a proposed federal review of the project.

On the other, the threat of Chinese spying is very real. It's not some red scare fever dream, though that's how some Fufeng supporters have tried to paint it.

There's no question that China has dramatically escalated its espionage on U.S. soil over the last decade .

We also know that they use construction projects as a shield for those efforts.

In 2017, China offered to build a $100 million garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. It would have had temples and a pagoda, only the country wanted to ship the construction supplies for the project through diplomatic pouches that are exempt from examination by U.S. officials, and it would have been built on one of the highest points in Washington, just a couple of miles from the U.S. Capitol.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that the feds quietly killed the project .

Now comes news that, for all the concern about Fufeng, China may already be spying on our Midwest military bases.

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This week CNN reported on an FBI investigation into Chinese land purchases near sensitive infrastructure.

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"Among the most alarming things the FBI uncovered pertains to Chinese-made Huawei equipment atop cell towers near U.S military bases in the rural Midwest," the cable news network reports . "According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, the FBI determined the equipment was capable of capturing and disrupting highly restricted Defense Department communications, including those used by US Strategic Command, which oversees the country's nuclear weapons."

The Minot Air Force Base, just a couple of hundred miles west of Grand Forks, is a part of America's nuclear mission. Sadly, little has come from these findings. The FCC has effectively banned small-market telecoms from using equipment from Huawei and other Chinese companies, and in 2020 Congress appropriated $1.9 billion to help remove that sort of equipment already in use, but as of July 15, none of the equipment has been removed, and the telecoms are still waiting for their money.

This is the national context in which the Fufeng debate is playing out — aggressive Chinese maneuvering with a lethargic response from our federal government — and while the free market capitalist in me wants to support this corn milling plant for the economic well-being of our state, I don't see how we can allow it to be built.

I think we have to say "no" to Fufeng.

North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, during a recent appearance on Fox News, argued for a "strategic decoupling" from China, and he's right. We have to rethink our economic ties with China. Our is a very open society, and China has taken advantage.

"We don't need this," Cramer said of the Fufeng project. "We can do better than this."

He's right about that too.

Our state will have other opportunities to see facilities of this sort built by companies that do not present even the whiff of a threat to our state and nation's well-being.

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Cramer said he's confident that the federal review he and other state leaders are calling for will reveal more concerns about this project. I suspect he's right, but given all we know now, do we really need to wait?

Probably, to ensure that the decision is thorough, and to deny Chinese propagandists the ability to truthfully deride any decision canceling this project as being arbitrary or capricious.

But once that review is completed, local officials should say "no" to the project.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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