Land purchases by Chinese 'agents' would be limited under Georgia bill; Democrats say it's racist

ATLANTA (AP) — A bill that would ban any “agent” of China from buying farmland or land near military installations in Georgia passed the state House on Thursday over the objections of Democrats who said it would lead to discrimination against Asian Americans and not promote national security.

The Georgia House of Representatives voted 97 to 67 in favor of SB420 — a bill that echoes measures already passed in numerous other Republican-leaning states — after a lengthy debate that included both testy remarks and personal stories.

Rep. Michelle Au, a Democrat who is Chinese American, said she has been accused during her time in the General Assembly of being an “agent of the Chinese Community Party, a spy, a plant, un-American and a foreign asset.”

SB420 aims to weaponize that sort of racism, she said.

“This bill, whether explicitly or not, paints a picture that residents from certain parts of this world cannot be trusted," she said. "They are essentially suspect and potentially traitorous simply by dint of their nationality.”

Republicans shot back that the bill is not racist or discriminatory but aimed at protecting the nation's food supply and military from foreign adversaries.

“Just to say everything is racist, that is falling on deaf ears," said Rep. James Burchett, a Republican from Waycross, Georgia. "I’m tired of it. I have been called that since I have been born, I feel like. And I am not that.”

The bill would ban agents of China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents from owning farmland in Georgia or any land in the state that is within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of a military installation unless they have spent at least 10 months of the previous year living in Georgia.

Though the measure targets other countries, much of the discussion about it among lawmakers at the state Capitol has focused on China.

To be an agent, the person has to be acting on behalf of the country. The ban extends to businesses in those countries as well, but does not apply to residential property.

An earlier version of the bill that passed the state Senate would have expanded the ban to all foreign nationals from China and the four other countries who are not legal U.S. residents, not just agents of those countries. It also would have extended the ban on land sales around military installations to 25 miles (40 kilometers).

The version approved by the state House on Thursday now goes back to the state Senate for consideration.

States including Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas passed similar bans last year, and Democrats have also raised concerns about Chinese ownership of farmland in the U.S. and supported such measures.

The laws gained traction after what authorities suspected to be a Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S. and entities connected to China purchased land near military bases in North Dakota and Texas.

Florida’s ban prompted a lawsuit by a group of Chinese citizens living and working in the state. A federal appeals court ruled last month that the law could not be enforced against two of the plaintiffs, saying they were likely to succeed on their argument that Florida’s restriction is preempted by federal law.

House Democrats cited that litigation on Thursday to argue that Georgia's bill would also get tied up in court and cost state taxpayers money to defend.

State Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat from Lawrenceville, Georgia, likened the bill to historical attempts by lawmakers in the U.S. to limit immigration from China and land ownership by Asian Americans.

He also questioned exemptions to the ban and raised concerns that real estate agents — unable to distinguish someone who is Chinese from other Asian ethnicities or an agent of China from an ordinary Chinese resident — would be reluctant to work with Asian immigrants.

“Passage of this bill will cast a shadow of suspicion on any Asian or Hispanic-looking person who may want to purchase agricultural land or land near a military installation even if that person may be serving in our armed forces," he said. "That is the bill y’all are trying to push through.”

Republicans said the aim was to protect national security.

“This bill is simply about Americans being able to feed Americans," said state Rep. Chas Cannon, a Republican from Moultrie, Georgia. "End of story. Because if we can’t feed ourselves, we can’t defend ourselves, in my opinion.”