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In Grand Rapids, Barr decries China's 'predatory' trade practices

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

U.S. Attorney General William Barr decried China's "predatory" trade policies during a 30-minute speech in Grand Rapids on Thursday, accusing the country of manipulating American businesses, stealing trade secrets and attempting to hack U.S. efforts to develop COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. 

China's ultimate goal since the 1980s, "isn't to trade with the United States, it is to raid the United States," Barr said from the podium at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. 

"No one should underestimate the ingenuity and industry of the Chinese people," he said. "At the same time, no one should doubt the United States made China’s meteoric rise possible.”

Thursday's appearance in Grand Rapids was Barr's first in roughly 30 years when he visited the area while working under former President George H.W. Bush, he said.

"I feel a special bond to the Ford administration, so it's appropriate to be here today," said Barr, who worked in the CIA under Ford appointees in the 1970s.

"I had the privilege to work with many of the superb people he brought into government, many of whom I had the opportunity to work with over the years, several of whom were my mentors," he said.

During his speech Thursday, Barr also alleged China's influence had infiltrated not only manufacturing and production but also film production companies, technology firms, the pharmaceutical market and universities. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., Thursday, July 16, 2020. The United States has become overly reliant on Chinese goods and services, including face masks, medical gowns and other protective equipment designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Attorney General Barr said Thursday.

Chinese hackers have targeted American universities and researchers to steal information on the development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, Barr said. They're hoping the introduction of a treatment by China would redeem its role in spreading the virus, he said.

"Beijing is desperate for a public relations coup and may hope it could take credit for any medical breakthroughs," he said. 

The Michigan Democratic Party criticized what they called Barr's effort "to distract from (President Donald Trump's) embarrassing weakness on China."

"He struck disastrous deals with the Chinese government while waging a reckless and ineffectual trade war that has hurt our state," party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said in a statement. "After three years of chaos and bluster, Trump has won nothing but empty promises while Michigan workers and farmers were left behind."

Barr's appearance at the museum is his first in Michigan since U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider filed a "statement of interest" on behalf of the Department of Justice in a federal lawsuit brought by seven businesses challenging the governor's executive orders to combat COVID-19. 

Federal prosecutors claimed credit for moving the needle on reopening when, four days after the statement was filed, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved Michigan out of a stay-home order and into loosened restrictions allowed under her reopening plan. 

The lawsuit filed by the businesses is ongoing.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com