A California mayor hopes China will save his town from meth labs and neo-Nazis
Rex Parris’ gaze blankets Lancaster, California. Driving northeast out of Los Angeles, you first catch sight of Parris as Highway 14 winds its way down toward the Mojave Basin. Sporting a full white beard and an almost mischievous smile — a look that’s been compared to country singer Kenny Rogers — Lancaster’s mayor beams forth from dozens of billboards for his personal injury law firm. Even when you’re reading rants against him in the comments of local news sites, banner ads for his law practice stand above the text: “R. Rex Parris Law Firm: Restoring Lives Since 1985.”
Lancaster is a desert town on the fringe of LA County, population 160,000, an area best known for neo-Nazis and meth labs. Crowned the “worst city in LA County” and “the most stressful city in California,” Lancaster has a serious PR problem, one that Parris is determined to fix.
Described as “more Old West sheriff than diplomat” by the Los Angeles Times, Parris does everything big and a bit off-balance: going to war with the city’s pitbull population; personally offering a $1,000 “bounty” for convictions of any member of the Crips or Bloods; pushing his city to be the nation’s first to go net-zero energy.
Parris treats Lancaster like a macro social-psychology laboratory. He wants sidewalks built with gentle wave-like curves that calm the mind, and he tried piping recorded bird songs into downtown streets to reduce crime. Then there are his ideas for tweaking local demographics, which verge on soft-core eugenics.
“Good things happen when you’re able to increase your Asian population to a certain threshold: Crime rates go down, education levels go up,” Parris told me. “Interestingly, the same thing happens with the gays. That’s why I put the new performing arts center right downtown.”
He has enticed China’s biggest electric-vehicle manufacturer to set up a factory in Lancaster, and he wanted to enroll immigrant Chinese “parachute kids” at Lancaster schools. He tried to fund the cash-strapped local hospital by courting wealthy Chinese “birth tourists.” He’s in talks to build a 10-story statue of the Buddha as a tourist attraction.
While Donald Trump has accused China of “raping our country,” Parris, a Republican, believes deep integration with the People’s Republic will revitalize his town’s manufacturing and turn Lancaster into a world leader in green energy. China, he hopes, will Make Lancaster Great Again.
“We’re just this small to midsize city here. The only thing we were known for was crime, and we’re changing the world,” Parris told me confidently while leaning back in his City Hall Office. “Our view is we’re going to do that with China — that is, if the State Department would get out of our way; if the federal government would get out of our way.”
China’s global shopping spree
In three decades serving as the world’s factory, China has stored up an enormous glut of U.S. dollar reserves. Now, its people and companies are on a shopping spree abroad, buying up everything from Virginia hog farms to LA mansions. Some are looking for a safe haven for ill-gotten gains. Some are scooping up cutting-edge technology that will power China’s next decade of growth. Some just want an American education and clean air for their kids.
They have found a welcome reception at American institutions desperate for funding. Cash-strapped public universities have used full-tuition Chinese students as a financial crutch. Silicon Valley and Hollywood find themselves groveling for Chinese investment and access to China’s middle-class consumers. American cities are banking on Chinese-funded skyscrapers. China recently surpassed Mexico as the top source of new immigrants to the U.S.
Entrepreneurial mayors like Rex Parris are at the front lines of this trans-Pacific boom. They are traveling to China to court investment and rolling out the red carpet at home for Chinese students, tourists, immigrants, and companies. In that crowded field, Parris stands out for his business savvy and bullheadedness.
His boundless confidence in his efforts can sometimes blind him to simmering Chinaphobia in his own town. Parris’ Chinese ventures have been caricatured in local cartoons, picketed by unions, and investigated by the state of California.
In a place like Lancaster, fears about the-Chinese-Communist-next-door give a sneak preview of tensions rippling across the country as China’s footprint expands. China’s outbound boom is flipping the script on globalization and stoking anxiety from Alabama to San Francisco. Americans aren’t used to their new position as supplicant — the low-income locals looking to wealthy foreigners and multinational corporations for investment dollars.
“The hardest problem was getting people to relax,” Parris told me. “The Chinese hordes were not coming to take them over.”
Down and out in the Antelope Valley
Lancaster and the People’s Republic of China make for an odd couple. During the Cold War, Lancaster flourished by churning out U.S. Air Force bombers that terrified communists the world over. But when the Soviet Union fell, thousands of aerospace jobs disappeared and unemployment doubled. Meth use spiked. Local neo-Nazi gangs clashed with rival anti-racist skinheads. The city never fully recovered, and when the 2008 financial crisis struck, unemployment climbed to 17.2 percent.
As Lancaster decayed, Parris rose. Born Raymond Parris in the neighboring city of Palmdale, he grew up poor, and suffered from social anxiety so crushing that he couldn’t bring himself to walk through a school cafeteria.
“I’m different,” he told me. “When you’re rich, you can be different — it’s called eccentric. When you’re poor and different, you’re weird and shunned.”
He dropped out of high school but found his way from community colleges to University of California Santa Barbara and eventually a local law school. After returning to the Antelope Valley, he turned multimillion-dollar personal injury verdicts into tremendous personal wealth: a private plane, philanthropy that got his name on a high school, and a mansion with private tennis courts.
Looking to supplement that wealth with some political power, in 2008 Parris poured $400,000 of his own money into a campaign for mayor. He won by 352 votes.
In his first term, Parris managed to alienate both the ACLU and local motorcycle gangs. He declared Lancaster to be “a Christian community” and insisted on opening City Council meetings with a prayer, a move that sparked a three-year ACLU lawsuit against the city. (Lancaster prevailed.) When Parris learned the Mongols motorcycle gang was meeting at a Lancaster hotel, he put up a fence around the building and shut it down over tax issues. He poured money into buffing up the city’s main drag, brought in a Walmart over the objection of activists, and mandated that all new homes come with solar panels.
But Lancaster’s fundamental problem remained: There just weren’t enough good jobs. For that, Parris turned to China, looking for investment that could breathe life into the local economy.
Chinese battery and car manufacturer BYD — short for “Build Your Dreams” — was emblematic of the post–financial crisis Chinese outbound boom. After taking on investment from Warren Buffet and being named the eighth most innovative company in the world, the company set up a beachhead in downtown LA in 2011. They initially hoped to sell electric cars to U.S. consumers but soon found a niche with electric buses. BYD’s first major contract for electric buses came from the city of Long Beach. Funded by President Obama’s stimulus, the contract included a “Buy America” provision, meaning BYD had to build the buses on U.S. soil.
When Parris heard the company was hunting for a factory location, he launched a full-court press to lure BYD out to the Mojave. Motorcycle police escorted visiting Chinese officials into town. Parris made a pilgrimage to BYD’s headquarters in southern China. He printed bilingual business cards for city employees — one side English, the other side Mandarin — and hired a Mandarin tutor for his staff.
Parris helped cut through the thicket of local regulations that baffle companies accustomed to China’s form of bare-knuckle capitalism. The city’s no-nonsense approach impressed Stella Li, BYD’s head of U.S. operations.
“They ask what you need and they do it,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.
Parris’ team introduced BYD to the owner of a local RV factory that had fallen on hard times during the financial crisis. To sweeten the deal, Lancaster pledged that if BYD hired 200 workers in its first three years, the city would gift it 13 acres of surrounding land for a second factory.
With that, the deal was done. On May 1, 2013, the first-ever overseas factory for BYD opened its doors in Lancaster. The factory would begin with a skeleton crew of managers and engineers, one that the company hoped to beef up to cash in on the land incentives. BYD even hired the owner of the former RV factory to stay on as general manager at the new plant.
Behind Lancaster’s buffed-up image lie darker realities, Parris’ opponents say. Political rivals, local activists, and ordinary citizens say that Parris isn’t just engaging Chinese leaders on investment; they accuse him of fostering a local political culture that mirrors that of China’s own Communist Party: cutthroat, autocratic, and corrupt.
“The way [Lancaster] is run is like a mafia,” said Johnathon Ervin, a former member of Parris’ planning commission and a fierce critic of the mayor. “Basically, he rules by fear and money.”
Ervin and others describe a city in which Parris and a handful of partners have seized control of the levers of local power. Lancaster’s elections are held in April, when the lack of other contests on the ballot guarantees anemic voter turnout. They say Parris then panders to local mega-churches and employs racial dog whistles to galvanize a deeply conservative Christian base. When it comes to his agenda, Parris brooks no dissent.
Ervin left Parris’ planning commission after breaking with him over a proposed Walmart, and he then ran for City Council. Parris responded by distributing a flier calling Ervin, who is African-American, the “gang candidate” for attending a protest against police brutality. The flier warned that Ervin would pass sensitive information about police activity to “his friends.”
Ervin lost the election to Parris’ chosen candidates by 749 votes.
Other local activists see Parris as complex and contradictory. Xavier Flores, a spokesperson for the local League of United Latin American Citizens, called Parris’ dog whistling “cynical to its core.” He cited the mayor’s new $1,000 “bounty” for information generating convictions of members of the Bloods or Crips gangs. But Flores supported a voting rights lawsuit Parris led against the neighboring city of Palmdale, and he commends the mayor’s outreach to China.
“Just because he’s done these things that we’re absolutely against … that’s not going to stop us from working with him on solutions that we believe are correct,” Flores told me.
Parris, for his part, acknowledges accusations of authoritarian tendencies, and says he understands why many felt the “gang candidate” flier was race baiting. But he brushes off the incident and others like it, arguing these are the eggs that need breaking for the omelet he’s cooking up in Lancaster. It’s the kind of rationalization you’d expect from Parris’ personal hero, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who both dragged China out of Maoist poverty and ordered the tanks toward Tiananmen Square.
“I walked into a city that was on the edge of the abyss … and you don’t pull it out and make it thrive by the normal way decisions are made in times of calm,” Parris told me. “Am I autocratic in how I do it? Yeah, I am. Are they eventually going to vote me out because of it? Yeah, they will. But what gets left behind, they’re not going to be able to undo.”
Red Scare in Lancaster
But Parris’ China outreach also touched a sensitive nerve in a city built on American military muscle. Nestled near Edwards Air Force Base, Lancaster prides itself on being home to pilots who flew do-or-die missions from World War II through the Cold War. In a town like that, Parris’ cuddly embrace of America’s new superpower competitor was bound to ruffle feathers.
After Parris’ first trip to China in 2010, a political rival put out television ads juxtaposing footage of the People’s Liberation Army marching through Tiananmen Square with Parris’ calls for Lancaster to be “Chinese-friendly.” Pasted over the video: “Stop Rex Parris Before He Brings 200 Chinese Communists To Live In Lancaster!” The ad’s creator, Democrat Robert Davenport, railed against China outreach in local media.
“If Mayor Parris and the Communists he pals around with and wants to have as business partners thought everyone here was going to welcome them with open arms and blank minds into a region of America that plays a vital role in our national defense, they were absolutely wrong,” he told the Antelope Valley Press.
But unemployment rates were falling in Lancaster, and Parris won re-election in a landslide. Taking that as a mandate, he doubled down on China outreach. Most mayors courting China focus solely on investment, but Parris was playing all the angles. He wanted to bring in full-tuition Chinese students to fund a local college. He tried to arrange for Chinese millionaires to fund construction projects through “immigrant investor” green cards. He hoped building a Buddhist temple would attract immigration.
And in the fall of 2013, he went too far. That year, he hatched a new plan to bolster the beleaguered community hospital: Chinese birth tourism. The Antelope Valley Hospital was in dire financial straits, with 40 percent of patients uninsured and unable to pay their bills. Moody’s had recently downgraded the hospital’s debt rating to Baa3, one notch above “junk bonds.”
Parris and Abdallah Farrukh, a Lebanese-born neurosurgeon who chaired the hospital’s board of directors, proposed building a new hospital wing dedicated to rich Chinese women, and they arranged for a Chinese delegation to tour the hospital.
“It’s a welcome business,” Farrukh told a reporter. “It’s phenomenal. They pay up front, and they pay double what Medicare pays.”
But locals were outraged. Welcoming foreign businesses was one thing, but bringing Chinese mothers to the Mojave desert to pop out American citizens for a fee just touched too many nerves: immigration, an evaporating white majority, the decline of middle America, and the rise of “Communist China.”
A poll showed 95 percent opposition in town. Nurses from the hospital laid into Farrukh at a board meeting. A cartoon in the Antelope Valley Times depicted a stream of Chinese military women marching out of the hospital, a baby cradled in one arm and Mao’s Little Red Book in the other.
Parris was blindsided. “To me it made perfect sense,” he told me. “You have affluent Chinese coming over here, and their children become U.S. citizens. We don’t want that?!? … What we should be doing is saying, ‘If you have a Ph.D. in money, we’ll pay you to come.’ Seriously!”
He quietly shelved the plan, but the anti-China backlash was gathering steam. Just as the birth-tourism outrage was dying down, the California Labor Commissioner conducted a surprise raid of BYD’s Lancaster factory. The inspectors found Chinese employees at work and slapped BYD with $100,000 worth of fines, claiming they paid the laborers as little as $1.50 per hour. Union protesters protested outside BYD’s LA headquarters. A group called Asian Americans Advancing Justice attempted to hand out Chinese-language fliers to BYD workers informing them of their rights.
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and local radio all covered the accusations, many calling BYD a cautionary tale for those looking to Chinese investment.
Parris sprang to BYD’s defense, and the company called in a crisis control spinmaster. BYD maintained that the “cheap Chinese labor” they were accused of employing were actually engineers flown in from China to help set up equipment for the coming American workforce. The company handed over Chinese bank statements showing the workers had been paid adequately in China, and the Labor Commissioner quietly withdrew most of the fines.
But the birth-tourism controversy and labor accusations had done damage. BYD’s public image was shattered and its key contract with Long Beach was terminated. Parris’ trophy company had been smeared as a sweatshop, and he stood accused of orchestrating an invasion of pregnant Chinese women. A few months later, Moody’s downgraded Antelope Valley Hospital’s bond rating to Ba2 – officially “junk bond” status.
Slowly, doggedly, BYD and Rex Parris rebuilt.
After the media firestorm died down, BYD built up a roster of clients from Stanford University to the state of Washington. In 2016, the Antelope Valley Transit Authority – chaired by Parris’ vice mayor – pledged to become the nation’s first 100 percent electric bus fleet and ordered 85 BYD buses. Those contracts quickly translated into jobs in Lancaster. The company has expanded to over 400 U.S. employees, a number it plans to push to 625 by 2018.
Parris is back on the China grind. He recently began talks with Chinese investors to build a gleaming 10-story statue of the Buddha in Lancaster. He is also looking into a hydrogen energy venture with China’s largest state-owned electricity company.
Parris won re-election easily in 2016, but his grip on the city may be coming loose. A new California law will soon force cities like Lancaster that hold off-cycle elections with low turnout to sync up with statewide elections. That and Parris’ support for allowing medical marijuana cultivation — which he says alienated his religious base — may combine to put an end to the reign of Rex.
When I returned to Lancaster late last year, the parking lot outside BYD’s factory was full. Having met its pledge of creating 200 jobs in its first three years, BYD is taking Lancaster up on its offer of free land to further expand the factory. It broke ground on that space last year.
Across town, an employment agency was hosting a jobs fair for BYD at a community center in American Heroes Park. The intense midday sun had emptied the park, but the community center was packed. BYD was looking to fill 74 positions that weekend – welders, painters, mechanics – and another 225 that year.
The air conditioning was on full blast as volunteers handed out scantrons for a math and reading test. Most of the applicants were people of color, many in their 20s and 30s. Few of the applicants I spoke to knew that BYD was a Chinese company.
Adam, a 30-something white man with a big beard and a belly to match, said he grew up in Palmdale and had worked for a local RV company. He had been laid off the day before his child was born, and was now applying for a role as a welder.
Next to Adam sat a young African-American woman who was filling out her own application. This month she was finishing up her accreditation as an aircraft mechanic, and applying to both a bachelor’s program and a range of jobs in the region. Talking through those prospects, she looked up from the forms with something between a grimace and a smile.
“Whoever gives me a job, that’s where I’ll go.”
Matt Sheehan is the former China correspondent for The WorldPost, and the creator of The Chinafornia Newsletter. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Chinafornia: Working with Chinese Investors, Immigrants and Ideas on U.S. Soil.”