The bill is one of numerous measures taken after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over the US.
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The Republican-controlled South Carolina Senate passed a bill barring citizens of “foreign hostile” countries from buying property in the state, an anti-spy measure that critics fear will stifle overseas investment due to excessive concerns.
The measure, approved Thursday by a vote of 31 to 5, will apply to citizens of so-called hostile countries on the US Commerce Department’s list, which currently includes China, Russia, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.
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The bill is one of many like-minded measures passed across the country after a suspected Chinese spy balloon recently flew over US territory and was shot down off the coast of South Carolina. The span added fuel to lawmakers’ concerns that nefarious actors might be promoting surveillance efforts under the guise of owning the land. Such proposals are considered by at least 11 state legislatures.
The South Carolina bill’s lead sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, said he was spurred into action by a Chinese biomedical company’s $28 million purchase of 500 acres (200 hectares) near the US Army Cyber Command headquarters in the state. He drew a parallel between some foreign land purchases and the Trojan horse of Greek mythology.
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“We need to look inside this wooden horse before we let it in through the gate. And there are some countries that have given us more reason to look inside the wooden horse before we let it in the gate,” Massey said. “These five specifically gave us cause for closer scrutiny and a little more concern.”
Massey said the law would no longer apply to countries if they were removed from the federal list and could apply to any countries added to it.
Democratic Senator Dick Harputlian, who opposed the bill, questioned the suggestion that a Chinese company buying land would amount to “creating a nest of spyware.” Admitting his distaste for the government in Beijing, he said the matter was best left to federal officials.
“It’s a bumper sticker,” Harputlian said. “This is not a law that will improve the quality of life for anyone in this state.”
Democratic Senator Mike Fanning expressed concern that this could limit rural counties to fewer opportunities for outside investment.
Massey acknowledged that some areas are in desperate need of economic development, but said the countries listed “deserved additional attention.”
“Still Citizens of Foreign Adversaries”
The measure allows businesses operating in the state until 2023 to purchase land for expansion with the approval of the Commerce Secretary and the Governor. Massey noted that this would not force current landowners to relinquish any property and would only apply to future acquisitions.
This will also cover companies with partial national ownership of the “enemy”. Citizens of such countries could not collectively own more than 20 percent of the shares of a landowning company, and no single individual could own more than 10 percent.
Immigrants from those countries that have permanent residence could acquire no more than five acres (two hectares) of land and only for living.
During the debate, Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto asked if, for example, someone with a green card could open a restaurant. Massey replied that such a person could do it, but did not own the building in which it was located.
“Why is this?” Hutto asked. “I thought the American dream was to own your own business?”
“Once they become citizens, they can do it,” Massey said, adding: “They are still citizens of foreign adversaries.”