COLUMBIA — The S.C. state Senate approved a bill banning Chinese citizens from buying or controlling property in South Carolina after ensuring that companies already doing business here can expand in the future.
The legislation approved 31-5 on March 23 specifies that Chinese-owned companies already operating by Dec. 31, 2022, can buy land to expand in the state if the deal is approved by the governor and state Department of Commerce.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, the bill's main sponsor, said he offered the exception after hearing concerns about Volvo's ability to grow.
Volvo Cars, which is based in Sweden but owned by China’s Geely Holding Group, opened its first U.S. plant off Interstate 26 in Berkeley County in 2018, three years after the deal was announced as a major win for South Carolina.
"They’ve demonstrated they’re good citizens and been through a vetting process and demonstrated they’ve been trusted," the Edgefield Republican said.
Nothing in the bill requires any current property owners to sell or give up their land, Massey stressed, but there were concerns that employers "operating in the state a long time" would be hindered.
The ban would apply to companies even partially Chinese-owned. Chinese citizens can't collectively own more than 20 percent of a company or its stock. No single Chinese citizen can own more than 10 percent.
While the primary goal of Massey's bill is to curtail operations by Chinese-owned companies, it doesn't say that outright. Instead, the measure bans companies even partially owned by citizens of countries the U.S. government considers a "foreign adversary" from buying or controlling land in South Carolina.
China tops that federal list, which also includes Russia, North Korea, Iran and Cuba.
"We’re not talking about Canada. We’re not talking about the English," Massey said. "We’re trying to protect South Carolina from too much interest" from countries adversarial to the United States.
China and Russia are both trying to take over the world stage, he said.
"We laugh about it some, but (China) just sent a spy balloon over South Carolina," he continued. "There’s a lot of seriousness there. These countries have earned additional scrutiny."
Sen. Dick Harpootlian was among the five Democrats who voted against the measure, saying national security is not the job of the South Carolina Legislature.
"I detest the Chinese government. It exists based on misery, suffering, punishment. They operate concentration camps. They're horrible people. This is no defense of the Chinese government," the Columbia Democrat said.
"My point is this: It’s an issue that should be dealt with by the federal government. I don’t know why we’re taking it up other than it’s great primary politics," he continued. "This is a waste of time. It's a bumper sticker."
The logic doesn't make sense, he said. If stopping a Chinese business deal equates to protecting against Chinese spies, then why provide an exemption for companies already here, he asked.
"They could be sleepers. Volvo is a nest of spies, I’m sure," he said sarcastically, rattling off other Chinese-owned companies. "Starwood hotels. Every time you check in, you’re helping the Commies. AMC entertainment: I wouldn’t go see that movie."
He also contends it violates the U.S. Constitution's implicit ban on states passing discriminatory laws regarding international commerce.
But Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, pointed out the state constitution requires the Legislature to limit the number of acres in South Carolina owned by foreigners.
"We’re talking about real estate, not about prohibiting companies from importing or exporting," he said.
The bill would amend a state law dating to 1956 which limits ownership by any foreigner to 500,000 acres. It was previously a 500-acre limit, but legislators made the change during a special session to allow for an economic deal for a large paper mill in York County, Campsen said.
"That was another economic development plan gone bad," he said.
The bill would also ban individual Chinese citizens from buying any property, with one exception.
Chinese immigrants in the United States on "permanent resident status" — also known as having a green card — could buy up to 5 acres for their home. Only after they become an American citizen would the law's limits not apply.
"So they couldn’t open a Chinese restaurant if they have a green card and are on track to citizenship?" asked Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
"They couldn't own it," Massey said. "Once they become a citizen, they can do that."
The measure now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.