Friday, March 1, 2024

Texas Republicans seek to curb Chinese land ownership, other activity in U.S.

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WASHINGTON — When a Chinese tycoon with close ties to the ruling Communist Party scooped up a vast chunk of South Texas to build a wind farm, the Legislature swooped in and blocked his plans.

For added measure, Texas lawmakers also barred anyone associated with “hostile nations” — China, Iran, North Korea and Russia — from control of any part of the state’s electric grid or other critical infrastructure.

Two years later, Texas lawmakers want to go further, blocking those countries from buying land — especially farm land — though the amount of land that foursome owns nationwide is already is modest: about two-thirds the acreage of Dallas County.

Still, with Russian troops invading Ukraine, North Korea testing missiles, Iran pressing ahead with a nuclear weapons program and Chinese spy balloons floating overhead, Republicans see it as a winning issue.

“This is a serious national security vulnerability that we can’t ignore!,” read a recent Texas Republican Party fundraising email, warning of Chinese “infiltration.” “Will you stand with us in support of … prohibiting hostile foreign nations from buying our Texas farmland?”

That referred to a bill from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, that would ban citizens and businesses from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, or those governments, from buying property in Texas — with very limited exceptions, for instance for people with dual U.S. citizenship.

Gov. Greg Abbott has committed to signing it.

Critics say the focus on Chinese ownership reflects an ugly, racist agenda, which Kolkhorst disputes.

In Congress, Texas Republicans have proposed a slew of bills to increase scrutiny of Chinese companies and their advocates, from closing foreign lobbying loopholes to a ban on TikTok.

Bills at the state level

Fourteen states already restrict or prohibit foreign ownership of and investments in private agricultural land, according to the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas.

Lawmakers in 15 more states are considering similar restrictions.

“There’s been heightened tension with nations that the U.S. has economically or militarily grappled with, and that’s creating sentiment among the public that the U.S. needs to create some separation from those communities and from those countries,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist.

The proposed South Texas wind farm project remains top of mind.

Starting in 2016, Xinjiang-based real estate tycoon Sun Guangxin began buying land near Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sun served in the People’s Liberation Army and saw combat in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, rising to the rank of captain.

In 2021, a bill designed to block Sun’s plans for a wind farm sailed through the Legislature. Abbott eagerly signed it.

The Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act was drafted to prevent entities associated with China, Iran, North Korea, Russia or any other country designated by the governor from accessing critical infrastructure, including the state’s electrical grid.

Chinese investors own about 383,000 acres of U.S. farmland nationwide — about 600 square miles.

That’s just under 1% of all foreign-held farm and forest acreage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2021 land report. Investors from Russia, Iran and North Korea collectively owned less than 5,000 acres.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Kolkhorst for her efforts.

“As the spy balloon revealed, the Chinese Communist Party knows no bounds when it comes to espionage, and they are already making dangerous moves to secure land near our military bases,” McCaul said in a statement. “I’m thankful Texas has champions like Senator Lois Kolkhorst working in our state legislature to protect our great state and its citizens from those who would do us harm.”

Kolkhorst says her bill builds on 2021′s Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act by prohibiting people and companies associated with those countries from buying Texas land at all.

“It makes good politics for the Republican base,” Rottinghaus said of efforts to limit the involvement of China and Chinese nationals in Texas. “But [it’s] dicey when it comes to the larger voter population. The Texas vote base is becoming more open to immigration issues, becoming more willing to see diversity as a good thing.”

Potential issues

Opponents see several flaws.

Property rights are a bedrock of the free enterprise system, including the right of owners to sell their land to the highest bidder, no matter their nationality, Benjamin Powell, professor of economics and executive director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, said in an interview.

The irony, he added, is that in trying to slap restrictions on authoritarian states, Kolkhorst’s proposal would make the United States more authoritarian.

“When our government makes rules about who and on what terms our private property owners can sell their land, it makes us a little less free enterprise and a little more centrally planned,” Powell said.

In an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News, he castigated conservatives who purport to embrace free enterprise yet fail to recognize that “this bill would undermine our economic freedoms.”

Some Democratic lawmakers decry the bill as racist.

“This is especially painful for the Asian American community because we have been down this road before,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston.

For him and others, the bill holds echoes of the notorious 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, one of several laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that severely restricted immigration from Asia. That law wasn’t repealed until 1943.

“It doesn’t impact at all people who either are citizens or intend to be citizens of the United States,” Abbott told reporters in late January, defending Kolkhorst’s bill. “There are people who emigrate lawfully from China, and it would not impact them at all.”

In response to criticism, Kolkhorst amended the bill to clarify that lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens are exempt, as are “homesteads” — owner-occupied homes.

Powell said any effort to curtail or block land sales should be better tailored to address specific national security concerns about the property or the buyer.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz reintroduced a bill last month that he’d filed two years ago, requiring review of any real estate transaction near a U.S. military installation or military airspace by a “foreign person connected to or subsidized by” the Russian, Chinese, Iranian or North Korean governments.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States would handle that. CFIUS (pronounced “Sif-ee-us”) is responsible for reviewing certain foreign investments and real estate transactions to determine the effect on national security.

Powell said Cruz’s bill is “better targeted” than Kolkhorst’s because it only applies to real estate near military installations. And it has no no blanket prohibition on sales, only an assessment of security implications.

“Such a requirement is much less of an infringement on the property rights of U.S. citizens,” Powell said by email.

Cruz said the espionage threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party is “acute, persistent, and has repeatedly endangered the safety and security of Texans and indeed all Americans.”

Donald Trump, who is campaigning to reclaim the presidency, vowed after the spy balloon uproar began to ban Chinese ownership of “any vital infrastructure in the United States,” the New York Post reported, including energy, farmland and natural resources.

Legislative proposals in Congress

Lawmakers in Washington are demanding restrictions beyond land and the farm sector.

A bill backed primarily by Republicans in Congress would require the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review a range of agricultural transactions. It would also add the Secretary of Agriculture to the panel, which critics say has overlooked that sector due to lack of agricultural representation.

The sponsor, House Republican conference chair Elise Stefanik of New York, predicts that the scrutiny would lead to blacklisting of the big four adversaries.

Sen. John Cornyn introduced a bill last month to crack down on lobbying by unregistered agents of foreign adversaries. Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, is a House sponsor.

Pfluger has also proposed requiring American universities to disclose ties to groups affiliated with the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese military. He said the bill increases transparency requirements, especially concerning funding, to limit Chinese influence on higher education in the U.S.

“It is imperative the United States sends a strong message to the CCP that this malign activity will not be tolerated,” Pfluger said in announcing the bill.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee quickly approved a bill from McCaul, the chairman, to give President Joe Biden the authority to ban the wildly popular social media app TikTok.

TikTok’s owner, the Chinese company Bytedance, says it doesn’t keep data in China nor share data with the Chinese government.

With limited exceptions, TikTok is already banned on federal government devices. It’s restricted on state-issued devices in at least 27 states, including Texas.

McCaul says the app poses a threat to national security.

Houston-area Rep. Morgan Luttrell’s first bill in Congress would prohibit House members and employees from serving on the board of any entity affiliated with, owned by or funded by China, Russia, North Korea, Iran or Cuba. The measure is largely proactive, as there don’t appear to be instances of members or employees serving on such boards.

Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, introduced a bill this month to revive a Trump-era Justice Department program aimed at curbing Chinese theft of intellectual property and spying at colleges. He says the program also protected threats to the supply chain.

In January, Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Sherman, introduced a bill to require more annual disclosures by public companies with ties to China. The legislation would increase government oversight on Chinese companies in hopes of shoring up domestic competition for U.S. enterprises.

Washington correspondent Rebekah Alvey contributed to this report.

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