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Do laws preventing Chinese from buying US land even make sense?

Critics say state and federal bills aimed at the CCP purchasing farms and other property are a solution in search of a problem.

Analysis | Reporting | Asia-Pacific

In the last month, two sitting governors — Ron DeSantis of Florida and Doug Burgum of North Dakota — announced their intention to seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. In many ways, the two men are different. DeSantis is one of the most prominent politicians in the country and governs the nation’s third most populous state; Burgum is the little-known governor of the fourth smallest state by population. 

Yet, in the weeks leading up to their respective announcements, both DeSantis and Burgum signed legislation that aims to ban foreign governments from buying agricultural land in their state. The prevailing goal of both laws, and a host of other similar recent efforts, is to counter China’s perceived efforts to purchase American agricultural land. 

The impetus behind the North Dakota bill was a failed attempt by a Chinese-owned corporation to develop a corn mill in the state because of its proximity to an Air Force base, while Florida’s farmland bill explicitly aims to prevent the sale of “real property” to “any official or member of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party.” Upon signing the Florida bill, DeSantis tweeted that he had just put into place the “strongest legislation in the nation to stop the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.” 

The “anti-CCP” bills that Florida enacted in May went beyond land ownership — they also prohibit state colleges and universities “from soliciting or accepting any gift in their official capacities from a college or university based in a foreign country of concern,” and ban TikTok on government devices and networks. 

Florida’s legislation passed overwhelmingly in both the state house (95-17) and senate (31-8). Opposition to the legislation came entirely from Democrats, with House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell telling The Tallahassee Democrat "My concern has always been with the lack of definitions with some of the critical terms used in the bill. Because we have a lack of definitions, if they were viewed to be overbroad, we could be veering into the area of national origin discrimination."

Using competition with — and fear of — China as a justification for legislation that touches on virtually all aspects of American life has become the norm in Washington. The total number of bills in which the word “China” is cited during the current session of Congress is rapidly approaching 400

But the recent flurry legislation shows that the trend is alive and well at the state level as well. Florida and North Dakota are among the more than two dozen that have passed or considered legislation restricting Chinese purchases of U.S. farmland in the past few months. 

Similar legislation is being taken up in the U.S. Congress, too. Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Dale Strong (R-Ala.) recently introduced the Protecting America’s Agricultural Land from Foreign Harm Act. While the bill aims to prohibit “individuals associated with” North Korea, Iran, and Russia from purchasing agricultural land, the statement released by the two members makes clear that the CCP is the ultimate target. 

“As a former CIA case officer, I recognize the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive influence campaigns, as well as its attempts to target U.S. national security interests through seemingly innocuous transactions,” said Spanberger. 

“The United States can no longer turn a blind eye to the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” added Strong. “As the CCP looks to exploit weaknesses in our free and open society, it is our responsibility to ensure that the American people are protected against those who seek to undermine our national interest.”  

This legislation is just one in a series of recent Congressional efforts aimed at curbing foreign ownership of agricultural land. 

The explicit goal of this kind of legislation is two-fold. One is food security. As Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) put it in the statement accompanying his version of the one introduced by Spanberger and Strong in February, “The United States is engaged in a great power struggle with the CCP, and we must respond with tough policies that will protect our farmland and food supply chain.” 

The second aim is couched in terms of national security, citing the alleged threat of Chinese nationals buying farm land near U.S. military bases, which, according to yet another member of Congress, could be used “as a launching pad for espionage.” 

Not to be left behind, Donald Trump has also made this an issue on the campaign trail. Like his rival DeSantis, Trump has included agricultural land ownership in a long list of grievances concerning Beijing’s efforts to increase their influence in the U.S. 

“China has been spending trillions of dollars to take over the crown jewels of the United States’s economy,” the former President and candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024, said in a campaign video in January. “To protect our country, we need to enact aggressive new restrictions on Chinese ownership of any vital infrastructure in the United States, including energy, technology, telecommunications, farmland, natural resources, medical supplies and other strategic national assets.”

As Reid Smith, vice president for foreign policy at Stand Together, recently put it, these and other similar efforts are often “a solution in search of a problem.” According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, foreign entities currently own approximately three percent of all privately owned farmland in the country. Of this total, Chinese nationals hold less than one percent, with a total of about 400,000 acres. 

But advocates for U.S. farmers say that blaming Chinese and other foreign nationals for food insecurity misdiagnoses the true root of the problem, which they say is the rapid increase over the last 15 years in agricultural land ownership by wealthy individuals, pension funds, and multinational corporations. 

“Our concern is really focused on the corporatization of agricultural land, and the impacts and implications of that for local food systems for farmer livelihoods,” Jordan Treakle, the National Programs and Policy Coordinator at the National Family Farm Coalition, told Responsible Statecraft. 

He noted that Bill Gates is the nation’s largest private farmland owner, and the U.S.-based financial services company TIAA is the largest corporate farmland holder. “So it's been quite disappointing to see this issue of foreign government or foreign person, agricultural land investment be raised in what we see as a pretty xenophobic way.” 

“The real issue, if [legislators] actually really cared about the food supply and food security and food sovereignty,” adds Fran Miller, a senior staff attorney and adjunct faculty member at the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at the University of Vermont Law School, “is corporate ownership of agricultural lands and ways that pension funds and real estate investment trusts and all these investors are gobbling up agricultural lands and trying to make as much profit as possible, which means that new farmers, marginalized farmers, people seeking land access to actually grow food, are stymied.” 

Agricultural land ownership is partly based on voluntary reporting, and therefore difficult to measure, but Treakle estimates that corporate ownership of U.S. farmland has tripled in the past few years. “Those small-scale farmers or family-scale farmers are never going to be able to outbid any kind of corporation that is recruiting capital from abroad or domestically to access land,” he said.

Some of these corporations are foreign-owned, but Treakle points out that the most important source of foreign ownership of U.S. agriculture land is Canada — not China.

Even if there are some legitimate concerns about foreign ownership of agricultural land, some of the proposed solutions are so sweeping that activists fear that the rhetoric will only fuel growing anti-Asian sentiment in the country, as expressed by the nonprofit Asian Texans for Justice, when a like-minded bill passed in the Texas state senate last month.

“We are disappointed that the Texas Senate has passed SB147 on the Senate floor. Since November, the rhetoric used in discussing this legislation has been rooted in xenophobia and racism. No amendments can undo the harm already caused to the AAPI community in Texas.” 

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