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Statehouse bills banning Chinese companies from buying SC land called discriminatory

COLUMBIA — America's global differences with China are on display in the South Carolina Legislature, where lawmakers are considering bills that would bar Chinese companies from owning large tracts of land in the state.

Opponents call the two measures anti-business and discriminatory to the very investors the state heavily recruited to locate here, with Chinese immigrants also calling the bills "maddening" and a barrier to their pursuit of the American dream. 

"Those people who come to this country are motivated by freedom," Frank Win of Columbia, finance manager for Jushi USA Fiberglass Co., testified at a Senate hearing on the proposal March 7. 

"That’s my motivation to come to this country," he added. "I don’t want this bill to affect people who love this country, who work hard and pay taxes and do everything they can.

"I feel my job is at risk," he said. 

But state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, one of the sponsors, said the legislation is about protecting national security, not discriminating against Chinese Americans. 

"This isn’t targeting anyone based on race. It’s targeting based on political connections to the Chinese communist party," the Spartanburg Republican said.

"There’s been a growing trend across the country generally where China’s become much more belligerent to the United States and our interests," Kimbrell said, adding, "Our objective is not to expose ourselves politically and economically any more than possible to the Chinese government or communist party."

He expects lawmakers to re-evaluate the state's recruiting of Chinese-owned companies. 

"If a targeted tax incentive went before the Senate right now for a company coming from China, I don’t think it would pass," he said. 

Jushi, headquartered in China, is among more than 40 Chinese-owned companies operating in South Carolina, according to the state Department of Commerce, which announced Jushi's decision in 2016 to put its first U.S. plant on 200 acres in Richland County.

At the time, the planned investment of $300 million, creating 400 jobs, was touted as the biggest economic development win for the capital county in decades. 

Since 2011, Chinese-owned companies have collectively announced $1.54 billion in capital investment and the creation of nearly 5,300 new jobs in South Carolina, according to Commerce, which has international offices in China and Taiwan. The economic development agency does not track how much land the companies own in the Palmetto State.  

Win came to the United States 25 years ago as a University of Tennessee student and became a citizen five years ago. 

"It's just not right," he said. "They're not punishing the Chinese government. They're punishing people who left their country for this new land. They're pushing people like us into the arms of the communist country." 

While the Chinese communist government is the target of both measures, neither actually names the country. Both would update current law that dates back to at least the 1950s, which bans foreigners and foreign-controlled companies from owning or controlling more than 500,000 acres in South Carolina. 

One bill simply strikes 500,000 from the law and replaces it with 1,000 acres. 

The other, which has stronger support, also shrinks the limit to 1,000 acres but exempts land owned or mortgaged by June 30. It also bars any new purchase of land by a "foreign adversary," as defined by the U.S. commerce secretary, no matter what the acreage.

The federal list of "foreign adversaries" includes five countries: China is at the top, followed by Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia. Last on the list is a specific politician, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Both bills will be back up for debate in a Senate subcommittee March 14. 

Longyu Hu, who owns five properties in Clemson, where he earned his doctorate degree, questioned whether his rental income from college students would dry up. 

"I was very proud to become part of the American dream and be a landlord," he said, holding up a pair of sweatpants covered with the paint he used when renovating his first apartment. "I'm very proud to be a South Carolinian landlord.

"This bill puts a limit on the free market, a core value we share in the United States," he said, concluding with a question that brought levity to the hearing. "What if one day someone said, 'You can’t buy land in Columbia because you’re a Clemson fan.' Where does this end?"

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, the lead sponsor of the more specific bill expected to advance, said he filed it Feb. 28 as a reaction to an announcement two weeks earlier that a subsidiary of a bio-medical firm operating in China and the U.S. was buying land in Savannah Lakes Village, a community in McCormick County built around Lake Thurmond, which stretches along the Savannah River on the border with Georgia north of Augusta.

According to the release, the deal included the possibility of using 500 undeveloped acres for food warehouse and distribution centers. 

An executive with SLV Windfall Group, the real estate firm entering the $28 million deal, told the Index-Journal of Greenwood he understood why the release upset residents but said there will be no commercial development on residential sites. A meeting Jim Walsh, co-CEO of the Windfall Group, held with residents to address rumors started with a slide pledging no food distribution centers. 

"This is not going to happen," he told the newspaper, adding that the buyer's senior managers are all U.S. citizens who want to expand their business into real estate. "China is not buying SLVW."

Massey said that didn't calm fears. 

The timing of the announcement seemed particularly bad, as it came days after the U.S. military shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of the Grand Strand. The Pentagon confirmed the balloon was part of a large surveillance program China's been conducting for several years. 

"I think it heightened concerns among those who live close to where this land would be," Massey, whose multi-county district includes the lakefront community, said about the balloon.

Add in, he said, the land's proximity to the Clarks Hill Dam, which created the man-made lake for power generation, and its proximity to Fort Gordon, home to the U.S. Army's cybersecurity center, and south of that, the Vogtle nuclear power plant.

"Those things combined with the global environment and aggressive behavior of China and their friendliness toward Russia, you put all those things together, and that’s what’s led to the concerns of the people in McCormick," Massey said. 

Asked about Commerce's heavy recruiting of Chinese companies over the last decade and the thousands of jobs they've brought, Massey said, "The world’s changed a lot in the last year as it relates to China."

Massey, who was surrounded by opponents of the bill firing off questions after the meeting, said he understands the immigrants' concerns and is willing to continue listening. He also expects some tweaking of the bill, which is co-sponsored by 14 other Republicans and one Democrat.

"What I'm really trying to get at is the purchase of larger tracts, especially like those in McCormick County," he said.  

"But I think in the global environment we’re dealing with right now, for those countries that are designated by the U.S. government as foreign adversaries, we have to be very careful," he continued. "I think everybody, regardless of political affiliation, has concerns about all five countries on that list."

The one Democrat who signed on, Sen. Thomas McElveen, said it was the 2013 purchase of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor, by a Chinese billionaire that prompted him to back Massey's bill. The Sumter Democrat said he doesn't want China, or any company propped up by a foreign adversary, to be able to control the U.S. food supply.  

"I think it's a national security issue," he said. The Smithfield "example highlights the fact I think we take our food surplus for granted in America, and I think the Chinese are figuring out ways to feed their people."

However, he stressed he doesn't want to "chill foreign investment." And, he added, "the last thing I want to do is be involved in anything that comes across as xenophobic."

He expects amendments to the legislation, saying it's still very early in the process. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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