Abbott seeks to ban Russian, Chinese investors from buying Texas land

Fear of espionage has Gov. Greg Abbott vowing to ban Chinese businesses and citizens from buying land in Texas, a move condemned by some Democrats as racist.

Abbott has already banned the use of TikTok, owned by a Chinese company, on government devices and this week vowed to sign a proposed bill in the Senate that would bar citizens and companies from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from buying property in Texas. .

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“I will sign it,” Abbott said on social media. “This follows a law I signed banning those countries from threatening our infrastructure.”

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she filed the new bill out of fear that Chinese entities are trying to buy up large swaths of land. She pointed to a Chinese energy company’s attempt to purchase 130,000 acres for wind farms near Del Rio as alarming because it would be just 70 miles from Laughlin Air Force Base.

“The growing ownership of Texas land by some foreign entities is highly disturbing and raises red flags for many Texans,” Kolkhorst said. “Passing this law delivers some basic safeguards to ensure Texans remain in control of Texas land.”

Democrats are calling the move racist because it doesn’t just block the Chinese government from buying land, but specifically bars citizens of those four countries from buying land.

“This blatantly racist and xenophobic piece of legislation is exactly what we expect coming from what is anticipated to be the most conservative session we’ve seen in Texas,” Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu said.

But it’s not just Democrats raising concerns about the idea.

David Bier, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said barring immigrants from purchasing property would run afoul of the Constitution.

“Assuming that this applies to noncitizens in the United States, it’s absurd and unconstitutional,” Bier said. “Noncitizens are protected by the Constitution, and their property rights cannot be stripped.”

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The Legislature went into session last week but the Kolkhorst bill, SB 147, is not scheduled yet for any committee hearings.

The legislation follows moves in both Congress and other states like Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis has called on that state’s Legislature to also ban nations including China from buying up land there.

“We don’t want to have holdings by hostile nations,” DeSantis said last week at a press conference. “If you look at the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve been very active throughout the Western Hemisphere in gobbling up land and investing in different things.”

Last summer, Republican members of Congress filed legislation aimed at blocking China from investing in US agriculture after a Chinese conglomerate, Fufeng Group, announced it was buying 370 acres of land in North Dakota — just 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base. Senior members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee questioned the purchase.

“It is dangerous, foolish, and shortsighted to allow the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies to purchase land near US military installations,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.

In December, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, charged with reviewing national security risks of foreign investments, announced it would not stop Fufeng’s purchase.

Last year, US Sen. Ted Cruz and US Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, filed legislation that would have required tighter oversight of land purchases within 100 miles of military bases by people or entities with ties to Russia, China, Iran or North Korea.

Those bills died in December, but during a stop in Houston last fall, now-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised a more hawkish approach to China once the GOP retook the majority in the House. He praised former President Donald Trump for shutting down the Chinese consulate in Houston in 2020 for spying and stealing trade secrets and technology from organizations such as the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, NASA and the energy sector.

But for all the anti-China legislation, China is the state’s third-largest export destination, according to the Texas Economic Development Council. The council also says China has been responsible for over $3 billion in capital investments in Texas that have helped create thousands of jobs over the last decade.

In December, Abbott issued an order to bar the popular social media program TikTok from all government issued devices. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company. The University of Texas and Texas A&M University have started to block access to the site through their Wifi networks.

“TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” Abbott said last month.

He also pressed the Legislature to pursue legislation to further strengthen that executive order.

US Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican and chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, has warned that Chinese businesses are required to hand over data and information if requested by the Chinese government.

Benjamin Wermund contributed to this report.

jeremy.wallace@chron.com

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