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Foreign land ownership is under scrutiny amid surveillance fears
The Chinese spy balloon that traced a path across the U.S. heartland earlier this year was only the most recent incident to stoke concerns over Chinese espionage activity in the United States. In 2021, Chinese renewable energy tycoon Sun Guangxin’s plan to build a 140,000-acre wind farm near Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas set off alarm bells in the state legislature and was summarily blocked. Similar concerns led the city council in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to block a planned Chinese corn milling plant near another air force base in early 2023.
Espionage concerns have increasingly melded with existing worries over food and economic security, leading to a rash of new proposals to restrict foreign ownership of real estate, and of agricultural land in particular. The federal government has the power to closely review land purchases, and Congress is considering legislation that would strengthen the review process. State legislatures are taking things a step further.
The amount of proposed restrictions has ballooned in recent months
The number of states mulling new restrictions on foreign ownership of agricultural land has grown quickly in the last two years. According to data from the National Agricultural Law Center, more than a dozen states are considering new measures.
Several States Have Proposed New Restrictions on Foreign Agricultural Land Ownership
The justifications for these restrictions vary from state to state, but in general they are a mashup of agricultural protectionism, food security and national security. They also target different groups. For example, California’s SB 1084 would specifically preclude foreign governments from purchasing agricultural land. Texas’ SB 147 limits purchases of various types of property by entities linked to certain “adversarial” countries like China and Russia.
While farmland has played an outsized role in the debate, Morning Consult data indicates people’s real worries are less about food security and more about traditional national security.
Farmland and food security are not top of mind for most U.S. adults
Half of U.S. adults are at least somewhat opposed to allowing foreign entities to buy real estate in the United States. When asked what justifies additional scrutiny of foreign land purchases, U.S. adults most often pointed to military security. Rural respondents were even more likely to cite military security, and were notably no more likely than the general population (13%) to say that food security is the primary reason to screen foreign purchases of U.S. land.
U.S. Adults, and Especially Rural Respondents, See Military Security as the Main Reason to Scrutinize Foreign Land Purchases
Similarly, screening foreign investment in farmland is not the point for most U.S. adults. Instead, respondents were more likely to say that energy infrastructure and land near military bases merit further scrutiny, with farmland coming in fourth. Among rural respondents, as well as Republicans, farmland only ranked third for extra scrutiny, showing a remarkable level of agreement among U.S. adults on focusing controls on energy and military installations.
Americans of All Political Stripes Are More Concerned About Energy Infrastructure and Land Near Military Bases Than Farmland
Public concern over acquisition of agricultural land appears to be partly associative — land near sensitive military installations often happens to be agricultural land. That said, special-interest groups may seek to piggyback on the U.S. public’s concern about critical infrastructure and national security to stymie foreign competition in farming.
Singling out adversarial countries for special attention resonates with respondents
Some measures, like those in Texas, Florida and Georgia, single out specific geopolitical opponents — most commonly China, Iran, North Korea and Russia — for additional restrictions. That is likely to resonate with many constituents. In selecting which countries they think should be subject to “very close” review of foreign land purchases, respondents most often named Russia (67%) and China (65%), followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia and countries like the Cayman Islands that obscure companies’ beneficial owners. Respondents expressed much less support for very close scrutiny of countries that are longstanding U.S. allies or partners, like Mexico (34%), Taiwan (27%) and those in Europe.
Most Americans Think Buyers From “Adversarial” Countries Should Undergo Special Scrutiny When Purchasing U.S. Real Estate
U.S. adults want legal permanent residents to be able to buy property
The public differentiates between individuals’ ability to buy personal property and foreign governments’ or companies’ purchases of assets. They are mostly in favor of the former but strongly opposed to the latter. There is some nuance: U.S. adults are split on whether those on student or temporary work visas should be able to purchase property. Partisanship also matters: More Republicans than not favor restrictions on all foreign entities except legal permanent residents, while at least half of Democrats favor allowing all individual foreign residents to purchase real estate.
U.S. Adults Largely Support Permanent Residents’ Ability to Buy Property
All politics is local, but some local politics is also global
Restrictions on foreign land ownership are in vogue in state capitals. This trend is likely to continue through the current legislative season, especially as Democrats and Republicans jockey to prove they are tough on China in the long ramp-up to the 2024 elections. States will borrow heavily from one another in drafting proposed measures, and federal copycats may also surface in reaction to state-level actions. The above data presents a guide to which measures are most likely to resonate with various segments of the U.S. public and electorate, and what language will be most likely to cross-pollinate between legislatures.
Country-specific restrictions resonate with large shares of U.S. adults across the political spectrum, while measures targeting private individuals residing in the United States do not. This helps explain the backlash against provisions in the Texas bill that would have prohibited home purchases by Chinese green card holders and dual citizens. That bill has since been changed accordingly.
Language around government and corporate purchasers from countries like China, Iran and Russia is the most likely to proliferate, especially insofar as it provides the flexibility to block transactions on national security grounds. In an environment of global competition, it turns out that hyperlocal politics can also be surprisingly global.