A local Florida newspaper’s editorial board called out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for taking recent actions to crack down on Chinese companies doing business in Florida, but then leasing aircraft from a company that does business with China.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel‘s editorial board on Friday said while DeSantis took recent moves, such as signing a bill prohibiting Florida government entities from doing business with China and other “countries of concern,” his administration is leasing a plane for $2 million a year from a company that does business with a Chinese firm.
The editorial board piece said the DeSantis administration “quietly signed multimillion dollar contracts” to lease the plane, which was made by an Austrian firm that was in 2017 purchased by a Chinese firm called Wanfeng Aviation Industry Co.
The piece said the plane is used by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents to track down illegal immigrants, especially in the Florida Keys, as part of an operation called “Vigilant Sentry.” The operation has claimed to have arrested 20 undocumented immigrants, including 17 Chinese nationals.
The state’s one-year contract is with the “Bank of Utah,” a trustee for the aircraft owners — who are unknown, according to the piece. The board said the contract was obtained through a public records request, and that it was signed by DeSantis chief of emergency management Kevin Guthrie and FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass.
The editorial board wrote:
No, Florida is not directly doing business with China here. The state is doing business with a bank that is doing business with an unknown plane owner who’s doing business with China. The middlemen just allow DeSantis to keep his hands ostensibly clean, and show how porous this ban on doing business with Chinese companies really is.
Call it a coincidence if you want. But the state’s leasing of an aircraft made by a Chinese-owned company to hunt for Chinese nationals crossing our border vividly illustrates China’s economic reach in Florida, whether DeSantis likes it or not, and reveals the limits of his “crackdown on Communist China.”
The board said DeSantis’s office referred questions about the aircraft contract to the Division of Emergency Management (DEM), which is an agency directly under DeSantis’s control.
A DEM spokeswoman told the board in an email: “The plane that DEM leased was from the Bank of Utah … In no way did we send a nickel to China. The narrative you are trying to pursue is purely false.”
The op-ed comes right after another potentially embarrassing story for DeSantis involving Chinese aircraft.
The New York Post reported last week that DeSantis allowed a Chinese firm called Cirrus Aircraft that produces equipment for China’s military to expand its presence in central Florida, including at an airport that was fewer than 15 miles away from a U.S. military training site.
Cirrus’s parent company, AVIC, was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020 as a possible national security threat. While DeSantis never publicly discussed the expansion, according to the Post, he delivered remarks standing in front of a Cirrus SR 22 aircraft while criticizing President Joe Biden’s response to the Chinese spy balloon debacle earlier this year.
Before that, the Messenger reported that the DeSantis administration sanitized a website for a public-private initiative in Florida that had encouraged Chinese companies to do business in Florida.
“Suddenly missing from the website of Select Florida (formerly Enterprise Florida) is a three-year-old report, finished in DeSantis’s first term, that called Florida ‘an ideal business destination for Chinese companies,’” the piece said.
The two reports were noted by GOP presidential rival former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — who is vying for runner-up status with DeSantis in the race, after former President Donald Trump.
The Sun Sentinel piece noted that DeSantis banned the TikTok app from government devices, restricted Chinese citizens from owning land in Florida, and cut off state subsidies to prestigious private schools in Weston and suburban Orlando that were controlled by an investment firm with ties to China.
It added, however, “But as with so many of the governor’s political pronouncements, the reality is much more complicated than it appears.”