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PolitiFact FL: Super PAC supporting Nikki Haley says DeSantis praised China, but he didn't

In this July 24, 2019 file photo, large cranes to unload container ships are shown at PortMiami in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee
/
AP
In this July 24, 2019 file photo, large cranes to unload container ships are shown at PortMiami in Miami.

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.

China has become an all-purpose target for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have been battling in Iowa and New Hampshire to become front-runner Donald Trump’s main challenger.

The latest example comes in an ad from a pro-Haley super PAC. The ad from SFA Fund began airing in Iowa on Dec. 28 and accuses DeSantis of trying to court China on behalf of his state. (SFA is short for "Stand for America Inc." By law, the political action committee must operate independently of Haley’s campaign.)

The ad says DeSantis is complicit in "allowing a Chinese military contractor to expand" near a U.S. naval base, which is similar to an allegation by another candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, that we rated Half True. The ad also includes clips of Haley being praised by cable news anchors for talking tough on China.

At one point, the ad says DeSantis "called China ‘Florida’s most important trading partner.’"

China is Florida’s top country for imports. (Exports are another story.) But the statement appeared on a state agency’s website; it wasn’t something DeSantis said.

The pro-Haley PAC cites as evidence that Enterprise Florida was tasked with recruiting companies to the state, and DeSantis, as governor, was its board chair.

"As chairman, and more importantly as governor, Ron DeSantis is responsible for setting the course for how the organization, and by large the state, draws business to the state — and during his first term, 2018-2022, that included establishing a solid, positive, working relationship with China," Brittany Yanick, an SFA Fund spokesperson, told PolitiFact.

But in addition to not saying those words directly, DeSantis has distanced his state from China since launching his presidential bid. He also signed a bill into law that dissolved Enterprise Florida and reassigned its recruitment efforts. That’s more nuance than the ad presents.

What was Enterprise Florida?

Enterprise Florida was created in 1996 to help bring companies and jobs to Florida. Its dissolution followed years of accusations that the agency had overpromised on job creation, despite having a big budget. The legislation shifted Enterprise Florida’s contracts to the state’s new Commerce Department and created Select Florida, a new entity to recruit international business.

The wording that SFA’s ad attributed to DeSantis came from an Enterprise Florida webpage about partnerships in Asia: "China remains Florida’s most important trading partner and export destination in the region, but commercial ties with India, Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries in South East Asia have grown significantly in recent years."

But other archived Enterprise Florida webpages show the agency was also backing away from China.

In the group’s 2021-22 annual report, the agency said Florida’s international trade team was "working with partners in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico to lure more manufacturing away from China and bring supply chains closer to home and into Florida."

The archived webpage shows that the language dates back to at least April 2021. The timing of the language’s removal is unclear; the entire website was taken down in November 2023.

Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’ press secretary from the governor’s office, dismissed criticism related to Enterprise Florida as "old documents, old links."

Redfern said the governor’s office realized in 2020 how extensively Enterprise Florida was engaged with Chinese trade and directed the agency to sever ties with Chinese companies. Redfern said former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, DeSantis’ predecessor and fellow Republican, was in office when incentive agreements with Chinese companies were approved and when Enterprise Florida contractors set up offices in places such as Beijing and Hong Kong.

As governor, DeSantis encouraged and signed legislation in 2023 that prevents Chinese Communist Party affiliates from buying farmland or land near Florida military bases and blocks the Chinese-owned app TikTok on government devices. Florida in 2021 also banned the Chinese Communist Party-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities and colleges. (The institutes taught Chinese language and culture.)

The SFA Fund gave no examples of DeSantis making a similar claim earlier in his political career.

Florida’s leading trading partners

There’s some truth that China is a key trading partner for Florida.

According to U.S. Commerce Department data, Florida in 2022 imported $13.9 billion in goods from China, well ahead of second-place Mexico, with $9.6 billion. The top category for Florida imports from China in 2022 was computer and electronic products, at about $4.4 billion.

Beyond Florida, China also ranks No. 1 in imports for 13 other states — politically red (Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee) and politically blue (California, New Jersey and New York). For an additional 19 states, China ranked No. 2 for imported goods.

China’s trade dominance in Florida goes one way. China doesn’t crack the list of Florida’s top five export markets; in descending order, Florida’s exports go to Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Colombia.

This mirrors the situation in most of the rest of the U.S. Only four states count China as their top destination for exports. Three states (Alaska, Oregon and Washington) are on the Pacific Rim. A fourth, Louisiana, is, like Alaska, a major oil producer.

Our ruling

The SFA Fund said DeSantis "called China ‘Florida’s most important trading partner.’"

We found no evidence in news reports or statements that DeSantis said this about Florida’s biggest trading partner for imported goods. The quote came from the website of Enterprise Florida, the state’s former business-recruitment agency that DeSantis liquidated in 2023.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as senior correspondent.
Samantha Putterman is a fact-checker for PolitiFact based in Florida reporting on misinformation with a focus on abortion and public health.