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PolitiFact FL: Nikki Haley distorts DeSantis’ Chinese recruitment record in Florida

Nikki Haley, left, argues a point with Ron DeSantis during a Republican presidential primary debate.
Mark J. Terrill
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, argues a point with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

Ties to China are front and center in the rivalry between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, as the two vie to challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

DeSantis has attacked Haley for courting Chinese companies during her 2011 to 2017 tenure as governor. That includes the 2016 recruitment of a Chinese fiberglass company with connections to the Chinese Communist Party.

Haley argued that DeSantis recently did something similar.

"Every governor in the country has tried to recruit Chinese businesses over the last how many years because everybody thought, ‘Oh if we’re nice to China they’ll want to be like us,’" Haley said Nov. 10 on "Fox and Friends." "And, you know, Ron has spent millions of dollars against me on this when the reality is, yes, 10 years ago I brought a fiberglass company, but he did something six months ago. So what’s his story?"

READ MORE: PolitiFact FL: Ramaswamy attack on DeSantis' anti-China land law missed some details

Haley provided no evidence showing DeSantis was involved in a deal as recent as six months ago.

When contacted for comment, her campaign cited two Chinese-connected companies with operations in Florida: JinkoSolar, a solar panel manufacturer headquartered in Shanghai; and Cirrus Aircraft, which manufactures personal aircraft and is a subsidiary of China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. Her campaign told PolitiFact that DeSantis didn’t stop the companies from moving to or expanding in the state.

The former came to the state before he was governor, while the latter company did so under an anonymous name, without state incentive dollars.

Haley campaign cites sanctions, federal raid of Chinese companies

In an email to PolitiFact, Haley’s campaign argued that DeSantis allowed "a sanctioned Chinese-owned aircraft company to expand in Florida one year ago," a reference to Cirrus, and "a raided Chinese company to expand in Florida six months ago," referring to JinkoSolar.

Aviation Industry Corp., not the Cirrus subsidiary, was flagged for sanctions by the U.S. government in 2020 because of its connections to China’s military. Cirrus hasn’t been sanctioned or accused of wrongdoing.

JinkoSolar has operated in Florida since 2018, before DeSantis’ tenure as governor. It already had plans to expand when federal officials issued a search warrant at its facility last spring.

JinkoSolar predates DeSantis, worked with city officials

JinkoSolar opened a Jacksonville factory in 2018 under former Gov. Rick Scott. The city offered JinkoSolar $3.4 million in incentives, with the state adding $800,000 more.

JinkoSolar was poised to receive a $2.3 million grant from the city to expand the company’s operation in 2023. But the city withdrew its proposed funding in June following reports that federal officials served a search warrant at the facility in connection with a Department of Homeland Security investigation. The company said it still plans to expand.

Officials have provided few details about the investigation, but The New York Times reported the probe involves whether the company misrepresented the source of certain imports from China and incorrectly classified the products, resulting in an incorrect duty rate.

State governments typically lack the authority to bar an established business from making operational decisions, unless those businesses are breaking the law. JinkoSolar hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Companies usually need to obtain permits for expansions. And although there could be some behind-the-scenes involvement by state officials to approve or deny requests, local officials handle those decisions.

"The city of Jacksonville or Duval County, they would have approved the current zoning or a rezoning based on the facts of the land," said Darren Stowe, a former principal planner in Florida with Environmental Consulting & Technology, an environmental and sustainability consulting company. "It’s all on the local level, I can’t see how a state could preempt that."

A spokesperson for the city of Jacksonville told PolitiFact that it didn’t coordinate with the state on development of the incentive package or retracting it.

Cirrus Aircraft arrived under ‘anonymous’ name

In 2022, Cirrus Aircraft opened two Florida locations, at the Kissimmee Gateway Airport and the Orlando Executive Airport. The latter is about 12 miles from the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis, told PolitiFact that Cirrus came to Florida "of their own accord" under an anonymous project name.

Aviation Industry Corp., the Chinese state-owned aerospace and defense company that owns Cirrus, manufactures planes, fighter jets and helicopters for the Chinese military. Cirrus, which makes personal aircraft, was founded in Baraboo, Wis., in 1994 before being acquired in 2011 by Aviation Industry Corp.

PolitiFact did not find any government reports or news stories that mentioned DeSantis’ involvement, or said that he offered the company financial assistance or state incentives. Other fact-checkers reported similar findings.

Local news reports noted that no city or state economic incentive money was issued in the Kissimmee airport project.

DeSantis’ actions with Enterprise Florida 

Haley’s campaign told us that DeSantis’ actively recruited Chinese investment through Enterprise Florida, the state’s former business-recruitment agency.

DeSantis once chaired the board of Enterprise Florida, but this year he signed legislation to liquidate it and move its contracts and data to the new Commerce Department. The law set up a new organization, Select Florida, to recruit international business.

Enterprise Florida, under DeSantis’ leadership, touted Florida as "an ideal business destination for Chinese companies" in a 2019-20 annual report. The report resurfaced during DeSantis’ presidential run, and the state removed it.

When asked about the removal, DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern said an Oct. 31 Washington Examiner story, which discussed some of Florida’s Chinese contracts, revealed a "large amount of inaccurate and outdated information on a website for an organization that the governor abolished, so it was updated accordingly."

DeSantis’ campaign and governor’s office pointed to actions he took as governor to limit Chinese influence in Florida. Redfern told PolitiFact that the governor’s office realized in 2020 the extent of Enterprise Florida’s engagement with Chinese trade and compelled the agency to sever ties.

Our ruling

Haley said that "every governor in the country has tried to recruit Chinese businesses … The reality is, yes, 10 years ago I brought a fiberglass company, but (DeSantis) did something six months ago."

PolitiFact searched for state incentive deals, news reports and other evidence that would support Haley’s claim and found little to back it.

Haley’s team cited two Chinese companies operating in Florida. JinkoSolar entered the Florida market in 2018, before DeSantis took office. Cirrus Aircraft expanded in the state in 2022 under an anonymous name. We found no evidence that DeSantis lined up state incentives to aid the companies’ projects.

We rate Haley’s claim False.

Our Sources

Samantha Putterman is a fact-checker for PolitiFact based in Florida reporting on misinformation with a focus on abortion and public health.