Wetlands at Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, Maryland, as seen on Sept. 24, 2019.

Wetlands at Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, Maryland, as seen on Sept. 24, 2019. (Sarah Lazo/ U.S. Army)

(Tribune News Service) — Lawmakers in Texas, Florida, Arkansas and in Congress have proposed laws banning citizens of China from buying land, homes or other buildings in the United States.

It’s a move they say will help protect the United States from interference by adversaries like China’s government, which they accuse of spying, theft and risking the American food supply. Former president and 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump has backed the efforts.

A federal proposal filed by a bipartisan group of members of Congress has been dubbed “Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act.” Eleven states are considering versions of the same measure, and Iowa already has a ban in place.

The Feb. 4 downing of what U.S. officials say was a Chinese surveillance balloon has brought fresh attention to the growing tensions between the U.S. and China in several areas, from trade and tariff disputes to military maneuvers.

But critics say the laws — which sometimes also include bans on land purchases by North Koreans, Russians and Iranians — harken back to racist laws from the early 1900s preventing Asian Americans from becoming property owners.

“It is scapegoating, it’s stigmatizing, and it plays into the view of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigner: They can never be American enough,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance and founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “And when you put these policies into place, you perpetuate that stigma and the attacks on Asian Americans.”

Texas proposal seeks to ban Chinese and other foreign nationals from owning land

Although similar bills have been previously filed in several states, a Texas proposal got new attention after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year said he would sign it.

In 2021 Abbott signed a different Texas law forbidding citizens or the governments of North Korea, Russia, Iran and China from having ownership or contracts connected to critical infrastructure. The federal government has already hit Russia with sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine as well as North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.

The proposed Texas property-ownership law bars purchases by people from those four countries, including Green Card and visa holders, and asylum seekers. The laws would not apply to people who are already U.S. citizens.

“The growing ownership of Texas land by some foreign entities is highly disturbing and raises red flags for many Texans,” Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst said in a statement announcing her proposed law. “By comparison, as an American, go try to buy land near a Chinese military base and see how it works out for you. It would never happen there and it shouldn’t happen here.”

Kolkhorst said she’s open to amending the bill to allow permanent U.S. residents born in those countries to buy land.

Where else is this an issue?

Kolkhorst cited several examples of what she called alarming land purchases in North Dakota, Florida and Texas, including the 2021 purchase of more than 130,000 acres by a Chinese-controlled company that planned to build a small wind farm near Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.

Texas lawmakers, including both of its U.S. senators, opposed the project on the grounds that China could use the property to interfere with the base or the already-unreliable Texas electrical grid.

Nationally, the U.S. Air Force said last month that a proposed Chinese-owned corn mill near Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota “presents a significant threat to national security,” but did not elaborate. Federal law requires a Defense Department risk analysis whenever a foreign person or country buys property close to sensitive military sites.

“As a third-generation Montana farmer, I’m not going to sit back and let our foreign adversaries weaken our national security by buying up American farmland,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, in a statement when he helped introduce the PASS Act in Congress.

Measure ‘targets immigrant communities’

Critics of the proposals say backers are using familiar rhetoric to advance a racist agenda exploiting fear to attack outsiders.

“It’s a resurrection of the ‘Yellow Peril’: We are outsiders who are threats,” said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. “They are creating policies that aren’t grounded in evidence or sound economic analysis, but are really based on stereotypes and outsized fears. And it works.”

Kulkarni of Stop AAPI Hate said there’s little evidence the Chinese government is backing a widespread campaign of land purchases for nefarious purposes.

She supports efforts to protect the United States from foreign adversaries, but she believes the PASS Act and other proposals are written too broadly.

“For a nation that sees itself as a country made up of immigrants, this is a measure that targets immigrant communities seeking to develop roots in the United States, and to become part of the fabric of America,” she said.

What are the concerns with foreign ownership?

Some U.S. security experts worry Chinese ownership of companies like Smithfield Foods threatens the U.S. food supply. Smithfield owns brands from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs to Cook’s Ham and Kretschmar deli meats and cheese.

As of 2019, 76% of U.S. agricultural land owned by Chinese entities belonged to Smithfield, which exports pork products to China, according to federal statistics.

A May 2022 report by the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned that China’s need for food is driving its efforts to buy farmland abroad, along with buying or stealing the technology behind genetically modified crops, sophisticated livestock management systems and advanced farming equipment.

“ The United States is a global leader in all of these fields, making it a prime trading partner and often a target of China’s efforts to strengthen its agriculture sector and food security, sometimes through illicit means,” the report said. “These efforts present several risks to U.S. economic and national security.”

How much of American land is owned by foreigners?

The federal government already requires foreign buyers to report when they buy agricultural land.

As of 2020, about 3% of the nation’s total farm, ranch and forest land was owned by foreign investors, according to the federal government. Of that, Chinese-backed owners represented less than 1% of the total of foreign-owned land, according to FSA, or about 550 square miles. For comparison, Rhode Island is about 1,000 square miles.

Why would foreign investors buy US land?

Experts say foreigners would want to buy U.S. land and property for the same reason the rest of us do: land and property are typically solid, safe investments that can appreciate well above a savings account.

Additionally, the transition to clean energy gives investors opportunities in a new arena, in the same way international companies own coal and other mines in the United States.

But some lawmakers fear the Chinese government is exploiting the openness of our society to spy, steal trade secrets and otherwise undercut the United States but controlling critical supply chains.

One analysis noted that Smithfield, the pork producer, uses hog farming techniques in the United States that are banned in China for being too polluting.

“... Chinese companies’ acquisition of hog herds in the United States may save China money and enhance its domestic capacity; however, this could also reduce China’s need for U.S.-sourced production and redistributes the environmental effects of hog waste to U.S. communities,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said last year.

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