With the phrase “Stop CCP Influence” displayed in bold letters across his podium, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two bills Monday to thwart foreign meddling in Florida’s government and education system.
“There is no single entity that exercises a more pervasive, nefarious influence across a wide range of American industries and institution than the Communist Party of China,” DeSantis said.
Sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Beltran, one measure (HB 1523) creates the crime of “trafficking in trade secrets” and enhances criminal penalties if the secrets are stolen and provided to a foreign government.
The other (HB 7017), sponsored by Republican Rep. Erin Grall, aims to curb foreign influence in the state’s academic research institutions.
Among other provisions, the legislation prohibits agreements between a handful of mostly communist countries and requires “thorough screening” of foreign applicants for research positions.
It would also force state agencies, local governments and colleges and universities to disclose donations and grants from those countries worth $50,000 or more.
Some of the seven prohibited countries include China, Cuba, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela.
The bills were among the top priorities for House Speaker Chris Sprowls last Session.
“Florida is at the forefront of rooting out Chinese espionage efforts that have resulted in the blatant theft of our state’s intellectual property and research,” he said. “These bills add new tools by which our state can combat the CCP’s attempt to corrupt and infiltrate our premier research institutions and they reinforce our efforts to drive out illegal foreign actors who seek to steal from Florida’s taxpayers. We are lucky to have a strong governor like Governor DeSantis, and steadfast legislators like Chair Grall, Representative Beltran, and our Senate partners who understand the threat we face from the CCP and the bold willingness to take action.”
DeSantis, while speaking at a National Guard armory with military vehicles in the background, said “Enough is enough. We’ve got to start fighting back.”
DeSantis also blasted Hollywood, the media, Big Tech and “woke corporations.” They are part of the problem, he argued.
“If you’re somebody that will light your hair on fire because Georgia is requiring voter ID but yet you’re lining your pocket with money from China and not a peep about the slave labor that’s going on over there, you my friend are a hypocrite,” DeSantis said.
While critics lambast the bill as a political stunt, proponents point to China’s history of meddling in state and local affairs.
In February, for example, federal authorities indicted a University of Florida researcher who created a company in China that would profit from his taxpayer-funded UF research.
The researcher and Chinese resident, Lin Yang, reportedly concealed support from the Chinese government.
Investigators said Yang was awarded grant money to develop “an imaging informatics tool for muscles known as ‘Muscleminer’” and worked on the project from 2014 to 2019. But Yang simultaneously had launched a business in China, and according to the Department of Justice, “promoted his business in China by relating that its products were the result of years of research supported by millions of dollars of U.S. government funding.”
Yang traveled to China in August 2019 and has yet to return to the United States, according to the Department of Justice.
DeSantis’ push to crack down on China is part of a large trend among conservatives fueled by former President Donald Trump. The Republican Governor signed the bill alongside Republican brass including Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, Sprowls and Congressman Carlos Giménez.
Throughout his presidency, Trump blasted China over trade practices. And in his term’s later months, Trump frequently blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on China.
Speaking Monday in Miami, DeSantis endorsed the lab-leak theory about the virus and accused China much the same as Trump.
“The Communist Party of China decided to cover it up,” DeSantis said.” They didn’t give any information out. They didn’t ask for any assistance. They didn’t give a heads up to anybody. They tried to cover it up.”
China has repeatedly denied the lab was responsible for leaking the virus. Trump, a DeSantis political ally, has long charged that the lab was the source of the virus, and President Joe Biden last month called for further investigation based on U.S. intelligence.
Other possible explanations are that the virus was spread through wild animals such as bats.
“While two elements in the (intelligence community) lean toward the former scenario (zoonotic) and one leans more toward the latter (the lab leak) — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” Amanda Schoch, assistant director of national intelligence for strategic communications, said in a May 27 statement.
Sprowls, meanwhile, trumpeted the legislation as the first of its kind in the nation.
A former prosecutor, Sprowls asserted the federal court system — where foreign espionage and corporate theft is most often prosecuted — is too overburdened.
“This allows us to step into the role as prosecutors to make sure those people are accountable,” Sprowls said.
“It is used to go into our research institutions and to steal from Florida taxpayers, to steal our hard-working intellectual property to bring it back to China, so that they can use that against American researchers, that they can use that against American businesses and beat America on the world stage. And that’s what today is all about,” he said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.