State lawmakers move to ban Chinese land ownership

In Washington, the White House and federal lawmakers are pursuing ways to constrain Chinese-owned businesses like TikTok amid a bipartisan push to limit China’s reach.

Now state legislators have embraced a novel, locally focused tactic aimed at China’s domestic investments: restrictions on Chinese land ownership.

Lawmakers in 33 states have introduced 81 bills this year that would prohibit the Chinese government, some China-based businesses and many Chinese citizens from buying agricultural land or property near military bases, according to a Washington Post analysis of data compiled by the Asian Pacific American Justice, an advocacy group. A dozen of the bills are now law in states such Alabama, Idaho and Virginia.

Most passed in Republican-dominated legislatures, but some found bipartisan support as sponsors argued they address a national security threat. The Chinese government could set up spy operations on land purchased near military bases, the bills’ backers say, and the nation’s food supply could be threatened if hostile foreign entities acquire too much agricultural land.

“This issue has a direct impact on all Ohioans,” said Ohio state Rep. Angie King (R) when she introduced a bill in June that would create restrictions on land sales, particularly agricultural property, for some businesses and individuals with ties to countries like China, Russia or North Korea. “Our state has been left vulnerable to attacks by our enemies.”

But Asian American advocacy groups and legislators have raised alarm that the new bills go beyond national security concerns and could encourage discrimination against Chinese Americans at a time of rising hate crimes — harking back to a time when they were openly barred from owning property.

“There is ignorance out there that causes people to think that because you are Chinese you are part of the Chinese government,” said former Republican Texas state representative Martha Wong, 84.

The Chinese Embassy also denounced the legislative movement.

“Commercial interactions between China and the U.S. benefit both sides. To politicize trade and investment is at odds with market economy principles and undercuts people’s confidence in the U.S. market,” said the statement to The Washington Post. “Such restrictions may also fuel Asian hatred in the U.S. and racial discrimination, thus running counter to American values.”

While most bills like King’s also ban land ownership tied to other “foreign adversaries,” including Russia, Iran and North Korea, lawmakers’ rhetoric has focused almost exclusively on China — and some states have gone even further than targeting government entities. A Florida law also restricts land purchases by Chinese citizens with non-tourist visas.

The movement represents a surge over the previous two years when less than 30 bills in total were introduced and just two became law. The bills gained traction this year amid rising alarm about a Chinese spy balloon’s journey across the United States before the Air Force shot it down in February.

“A week after I submitted the bill, the Chinese spy balloon was fired over Montana and that really got everyone in the legislature on board,” said Montana state Sen. Ken Bogner (R) of his successful bill.

Critics say the movement is also being fueled by growing anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, evidenced by a rise in hate crimes that became particularly acute during the covid-19 pandemic.

“President Trump calling covid-19 the China Virus and Kung Flu laid the groundwork for people to blame China for their own misfortunes,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who is Chinese American and has introduced a bill that seeks to combat the land ownership restrictions. “Now we see this anti-China fever taking a different route, with politicians trying to gain political points by being more anti-China than the next person.”

Wong testified against several Texas bills by describing how she lived for years as a child in her family’s grocery storage room because no one would rent or sell a home to her Chinese American father. “We do not want backward movement to the type of discrimination my father faced,” she said.

The push in states to limit Chinese ownership has extended to Congress, where at least 11 bills aiming to restrict land buys by Chinese businesses and citizens have been introduced over the past three years. None have passed, but several are still pending, and the language from one bill was recently inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate last month.

In a social media post last week, Rep. Dan Newhouse, (R-Wash.) argued that China’s “pattern of aggression poses immediate risks to our food supply chains & national security,” and cited statistics from a U.S. Agriculture Department report.

But some experts say national security concerns are inflated because China and Chinese investors own a fraction of U.S. agricultural lands. The USDA report cited by Newhouse shows Chinese investors own about 1 percent of American agricultural land, and only about .03 percent of that is farmland. The rest are agriculturally zoned properties that include rural roads, homesteads and non-farm-related buildings.

“For purposes of food security, blocking Chinese or other foreign investors, that argument doesn’t hold a lot of water,” said Joe Glauber, USDA’s chief economist from 2008 to 2014 and now a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute. “We are already exporting a large portion of what we produce, so it is not a question of needing to keep this stuff at home. As far as farmland is concerned, what China owns is literally a drop in the bucket.”

The bills face an uncertain legal future. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the constitutionality of the Florida law, making some of the same arguments that caused several state supreme courts to strike down broad bans on land ownership by foreign citizens of Asian countries decades ago, including a pivotal California Supreme Court decision in 1952.

“Banning people from buying a house based on where they are from is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Ashley Gorski, a lead attorney in the ACLU case against the state of Florida. “Everyone in the United States is entitled to equal protection under the constitution, including citizens of other countries.”

Regardless, lawmakers and advocates tracking the legislation say momentum is building for more bills in state houses.

“We expect the political rhetoric on this to escalate and also expect more legislation to be introduced and passed,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which has been fighting the bills. “Even state legislators want to appear to be tough on China right now, and they are grasping for things that they can control in their own state legislatures to show that they are being tough.”

A recent boom

The United States has a long history of preventing noncitizens and minorities from buying property and establishing businesses, dating to colonial restrictions on British subjects. Enslaved people were not allowed to own property until constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War ending slavery and establishing birthright citizenship.

And Asian Americans were often specifically targeted, including with alien land laws in the early 1900s in more than a dozen states. During World War II, Japanese Americans lost homes and businesses when they were sent to prison camps.

Alien land laws targeting Asian Americans were largely struck down by state supreme courts or repealed by state legislatures or voters — many in the 1940s and 1950s.

“This issue goes way back even to before we declared our independence,” said Micah Brown, an attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, adding that the irony is “the founders stated that a reason for declaring our independence was because they were tired of the crown’s tyrannical policy on what they defined as aliens or nonresidents owning land.”

The latest effort to restrict foreign land ownership began in 2019 when Chinese billionaire Sun Guangxin proposed a 46-turbine wind farm in southwest Texas to feed into the state’s electricity grid.

Critics soon raised concerns about Sun’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and lawmakers suggested spying devices could be added to the farm’s turbines to monitor nearby Laughlin Air Force Base.

The project passed a regulatory inspection by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — a federal organization that reviews foreign projects for national security threats — and the Defense Department determined the turbines would not interrupt training routes at the Air Force base. But Republican state lawmakers responded by banning any business tied to “hostile nations” from accessing the Texas electricity grid or other “critical infrastructure,” effectively killing the project.

Last year, North Dakota lawmakers raised similar alarm when a Chinese conglomerate bought agricultural land near Grand Forks Air Force Base with hopes of building a corn mill. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States did not conduct a detailed review, saying the Air Force base was not on a list of “sensitive” military installations.

But North Dakota Republican Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer petitioned the U.S. Air Force, which said the project “presents a significant threat to national security.” The deal was killed, and the state legislature passed a bill restricting Chinese companies from building similar projects on agricultural land or near military bases.

This year, dozens more states have introduced bills, and some have grown in scope to include private citizens from “hostile” nations. Some contain sweeping language, including a bill in Louisiana that would have prohibited a person from a country considered to be a“foreign adversary” to buy or rent property near a military base — even those with valid student visas.

The bill could have blocked students from attending colleges near military bases, legal experts said. University officials and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association fought the bill, which died in June.

“State legislators are trying to get involved in federal areas that are not their expertise,” said Edgar Chen, an attorney and policy adviser with the bar association. “A lot of this is because of rushed, inartful drafting of the bills that could sweep up a lot of innocent parties.”

Among the 14 state bills enacted into law since 2021, all passed Republican supermajorities except for a Virginia bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

Most ban the Chinese government and other “adversarial nations” from owning agricultural land or businesses, owning or building on property near military bases, or owning “critical infrastructure” like wastewater treatment plants or the land on or near where they are located. Most also extend some restrictions to businesses based in the these countries.

At least three measures set limits on private citizens buying property for a home and boundaries for how close that land can be to military bases. Florida is believed to have the stiffest penalties, including up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, possible deportation and loss of property.

The bills have resonated in state houses because land ownership is a rare area where local lawmakers can potentially impact the geopolitical conflict. However, political analysts say the movement has also joined the growing list of culture war issues that have come to dominate state legislative agendas.

“In this era of nationally polarized parties, national activist groups, and national media, state level politicians know that playing to these national culture war issues can help them rise in the ranks of their party,” said Jake M. Grumbach, a political science associate professor at University of California, Berkeley.

The pushback

When Texas lawmakers proposed three laws this year to restrict property purchases by Chinese businesses and citizens, Wong, the former Texas state representative, came out of retirement. She met with Asian American activists and encouraged them to flood the Capitol in Austin with residents who would be impacted by the bills, instead of hiring professional lobbyists. She waited through two hours of testimony in a hearing to tell the legislature her family’s story.

“The power of personal testimony is much better than what a lobbyist can do,” Wong said in an interview. “Hundreds of people showed up at the Capitol to tell their stories. It was effective, but I don’t think it’s over at all.”

Wong’s efforts are emblematic of a growing alarm among Asian American groups and legislators who have mounted campaigns mirrored by a concerted legal pushback.

The current legal challenge is focused on Florida’s law, which Asian American advocates view as a test case. The lawsuit, filed in May by the ACLU in Tallahassee federal court, asserts the law violates multiple parts of the U.S. Constitution, including “due process” provisions because it argues the language is vague and broad.

Florida’s law restricts property purchases or business developments near any “military installations.” So a condo purchase near a Coast Guard station could be as serious a violation as one bought by an Army base where top-secret overseas military operations are planned, several legal experts said. That law also could also restrict political exiles from China and other nations.

“On its face, the law would place restrictions on Kremlin critic [Alexei] Navalny,” Chen said in a statement. “If the intent of this law is to undermine authoritarian regimes, it does the opposite by punishing those most opposed to those governments.”

The Florida law also puts the onus on property buyers to interpret the rules, the ACLU argues, with strict liability if they misread it.

“If you are to subject people to strict criminal liability if they purchase property in violation of the law, where it doesn’t matter what their intent is, it’s especially important that the law is clear,” said Gorski, the lead attorney in the ACLU case. “This means knowing exactly what constitutes critical infrastructure or military installations.”

The lawsuit asserts that the law violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the U.S. Justice Department has submitted an amicus brief in support of this position, saying, “The FHA prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, disability, and national origin.”

In legal filings, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) disputes that the law violates the Constitution, argues that the law is “not motivated by racial or national-origin animus,” and alleges the plaintiffs have failed to show discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. A dozen other Republican state attorneys general have filed an amicus brief backing Florida’s law, saying states “are not required to ensure that foreign governments and principals have unfettered access to the lands within their borders. The U.S. Constitution does not say otherwise.”

On Thursday, the judge in the case denied the ACLU’s request for a preliminary injunction of the law while the court case is pending.

Lawmakers are pushing ahead with both state and federal legislation. The latest state bill, in Ohio, which was introduced weeks after the ACLU lawsuit was filed, has not yet had a hearing or come up for a vote.

In Congress, other congressional bills are pending that call for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to take a more aggressive stance on national security threats — a move that has previously been backed by business organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Stalled legislation by Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) was also added to the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate with a 86-11 vote in July. An earlier House version of the defense spending bill did not contain the amendment, which would prohibit China and three other nations from buying U.S. farmland and agricultural companies. The two versions of the bill are now being discussed in conference committee.

“Can you think of any reason for why we would allow Red China to buy farmland in the United States?” Rounds said in an interview about his legislative push. “It passed the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote, so I am optimistic, and I have heard no opposition from the House.”

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