Kansas considers limits on economic activity with China and other ‘countries of concern’

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The Associated Press

John Hanna

Published Mar 27, 2024  •  3 minute read

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas advanced proposals Wednesday aimed at preventing individuals and companies from China and other U.S. adversaries from owning farmland or business property, limiting state investments in foreign companies and restricting the use of foreign-made drones.

Some GOP conservatives, including state Attorney General Kris Kobach, want the state to enact even tougher restrictions, even as Democratic critics suggest the measures are fueled by xenophobia.

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Kansas already limits corporate ownership of agricultural land, and more than 20 other states restrict foreign land ownership, according to the National Agricultural Law Center. Supporters of such measures argue that they protect military installations and U.S. citizens from spying and other national security risks.

The Republican-controlled Kansas House approved three bills addressing activities by individuals and companies from “countries of concern” — China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela — and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

Under one bill, if their citizens own more than 10% of a firm, the firm couldn’t own farmland or business property within 150 miles (241 kilometers) of a U.S. military or National Guard base or property owned by any other U.S. or state agency critical to security — enough installations that all of Kansas is covered.

Another bill would require the state to divest from companies with ties to the listed nations. A third would prohibit state and local agencies from acquiring drones with “critical components” made in those nations — and require agencies, including law enforcement, to replace drones with those components within five years.

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“It is inappropriate for our state to allocate resources to countries that present substantial obstacles to human rights, international stability and our national security,” said Republican state Rep. Nick Hoheisel, of Wichita, the chair of committees on pensions, banking and state investments.

The votes were 85-38 on the state investment measure, 84-39 on the foreign land ownership proposal and 83-40 on the bill dealing with drones, and all three measures go next to the GOP-controlled state Senate. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has not said what she will do, but the House votes suggested that backers could have the two-thirds majority there to override a veto.

Eighty of the House’s 85 Republicans voted “yes” on all three bills, while 36 of the 40 Democrats voted “no.”

Some Democrats argued during debates Tuesday that Republicans were stoking anti-China sentiment, and Rep. Rui Xu, a Kansas City-area Democrat, compared the land ownership bill to decades-past U.S. policies discriminating against Asian Americans or Asian immigrants.

A Kansas State University report for lawmakers last fall said foreign individuals or companies had an interest in only 2.4% of the state’s 49 million acres of privately owned agricultural land, and more than 94% of it could be attributed to land leased for solar or wind farms. Chinese ownership accounted for only a single acre, the report said.

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“This has turned into Asian Prejudice Day in the Kansas Legislature, and it’s not a proud moment,” Democratic Rep. John Carmichael, of Wichita, said during Tuesday’s debates.

But the bills’ supporters rejected allegations that the measures were xenophobic or racist. Hoeheisel said they are justified by the nations’ human rights abuses. For example, in explaining his “yes” vote on the investments measure, he described Iran as a place “where women are subjected to stoning merely for being seen in public with a male who’s not a relative.”

And Rep. Patrick Penn, another Wichita Republican, said the land-ownership bill would protect families by “seeking the truth” about “those who would seek to harm us.”

“Let’s investigate. Let’s know the truth. Let’s be free,” Penn said.

Kobach has proposed barring any foreign national from owning more than 3 acres of property in Kansas and setting up a new State Land Council with the power to review individual cases and make exceptions. The proposal remains stuck in a Senate committee, having inspired opposition from business and agriculture groups.

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When Kobach unveiled his proposal during a Statehouse news conference in February, he said it was more likely than other proposals to lead to investigations of who’s buying Kansas land.

“That flat prohibition then requires individuals to come to the state and ask for an exception,” he said.

Meanwhile, Democratic critics argued that the land ownership bill wouldn’t prevent spying and other threats to national security but would instead boomerang on immigrant small business owners waiting to become U.S. citizens.

“To the extent that there is a problem, much of it could be addressed by our existing prohibition on corporate ownership of farmland,” said Democratic Rep. Boog Highberger, from Lawrence.

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