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The blatant discrimination of Ron DeSantis’s anti-China housing law

DeSantis wants to beef up his “tough on China” cred. The result is a racist law.

Ron DeSantis speaks into a handheld microphone, gesturing with his other hand. He’s wearing a blue suit and white shirt, and stands in front of a tall blue backdrop showing the state of Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at the North Charleston Coliseum on April 19, 2023, in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed disturbing legislation that could fuel racial profiling of Chinese immigrants in the state.

The bill, which bars many Chinese citizens from buying property in Florida, is the latest in an ongoing state and federal effort from Republican lawmakers to emphasize that they are “tough on China” as geopolitical and economic tensions have grown between the two countries. Activists, however, fear that it codifies and emboldens racial profiling in the state, making it harder for Chinese immigrants and Asian Americans to buy homes.

The Florida policy is theoretically intended to combat the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on US affairs, according to DeSantis. However, its broad scope and focus on Chinese people who have no ties to the government has fueled concerns about who will actually be impacted by it.

“The reality will be that any seller, when they see a Chinese name ... will think, ‘Too much trouble,’ and they’ll refuse to sell,” says Echo King, a Chinese American attorney based in Orlando, Florida, who has helped organize opposition to the legislation as part of the Florida Asian American Justice Alliance. “My community, lots of people are scared.”

Specifically, the ban on property ownership applies to people who are “domiciled” in China who are not US citizens, and who are not legal permanent residents. Chinese citizens with non-tourist visas are also allowed to purchase land, though they aren’t able to buy more than two acres, and can only do so at least five miles from military sites. That provision is still extremely restrictive, given the number of places in Florida that could be classified as military sites, activists note. Another provision in the bill bars most citizens of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria from purchasing farmland that’s within 10 miles of specific sites.

Democratic federal lawmakers have also raised concerns about a registration requirement in the law, which mandates that some Chinese nationals have to register their existing property with the state government, and any new purchases as well. It’s set to go into effect on July 1.

The legislation underscores how broad, xenophobic policies can result as a product of the anti-China rhetoric that has grown in the last few years. There’s much that the US should hold the Chinese government accountable for, including horrific human rights violations such as the mass internment of the Uyghur population. But the framing often used by lawmakers regarding issues like economic competition creates an “us versus them” mentality that, historically, has spurred discrimination and racial profiling of Asian Americans.

The spike in anti-China sentiment and policies is reminiscent of past instances when foreign policy concerns were conflated with the domestic treatment of Asian Americans. During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps because the US was at war with Japan, for example.

“It is frankly what we’ve seen throughout history, that when there are issues involving a foreign nation, there’s a backlash against the Asian American community in the United States,” John Yang, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, previously told Vox.

The threat of xenophobic policies

DeSantis isn’t the only lawmaker backing anti-China policies. Republicans — and some Democrats, like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — have made proposals countering China a major focus, as they’ve sought to bolster the United States’s ability to compete in manufacturing and other sectors. That’s not to say that all these proposals take the same broadly discriminatory approach as the Florida law, but that there is bipartisan interest in curbing the Chinese government’s economic and political power.

In Texas, there’s similarly been an outcry in Asian American and immigrant communities about a bill that was working its way through the state legislature that would have been comparable to Florida’s new law, and bar many Chinese citizens from owning property. King says she and others plan to file a lawsuit against the Florida law.

“You can target foreign governments, you can target [the] foreign Chinese Communist Party, but you have to separate that from the individuals that are already in this country and protected by the Constitution,” Hugh Li, president of the Austin Chinese-American Network, previously told the Texas Tribune. “This is our land too. This is our home too.”

Republican lawmakers and some Democrats have responded to criticism of the policies by saying they only want to target land purchases by the Chinese government. They argue allowing those aligned with the Chinese government to purchase land creates a national security risk if they’re able to establish a presence near sensitive sites like naval bases, or agricultural areas involved with the US food supply. However, the bills are so broadly written that many individuals with no affiliation to the government are likely to be affected by them as well.

No barriers to land ownership have passed at the federal level, though there has been discussion about bills focused on limiting purchases of farmland. House Republicans have also set up a specific select committee to scrutinize China, trafficking in xenophobic rhetoric as tensions with the country have grown. In one instance, Texas Rep. Lance Gooden questioned Chinese American Rep. Judy Chu’s loyalty to the United States, a statement that received widespread pushback from both Democrats and Republicans and that Chu has described as “outrageous” and “racist.”

Outside of Congress, efforts like the Trump-era China Initiative by the Justice Department — which has been ended — have also led to the racial profiling of Chinese American scientists, including some who were wrongly prosecuted for alleged espionage.

In the past, there have been many cases in which inflammatory rhetoric led to violence and punitive policies, particularly when the US has had economic or military conflict with other countries, as is currently the case with China. The parallels with those instances are part of why there’s been such a strong reaction to the Florida and Texas bills, and why language like Gooden’s has caused such alarm.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans were racially profiled domestically as the US aimed to address terrorism in the Middle East. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, there were violent attacks on Chinatowns and Asian American people in the US. In 1982, 27-year-old Chinese American Vincent Chin was killed by two white auto workers who blamed him for the industry’s increasing competition from Japan. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of Asian Americans were scapegoated as Trump and other lawmakers used racist rhetoric to emphasize the virus’s origins in China.

The Asian Pacific American Caucus in Congress and progressive foreign policy organization Justice is Global have released guidance with recommendations of how to discuss competition and other concerns with China, while being cognizant of the impact on Asian Americans. One key takeaway is focusing any attacks on the Chinese government, rather than levying them against Chinese people as a whole.

“Any rhetoric and any policy that treats every single person from China as a potential agent of the government is both going to lead to these sorts of racist policies and also completely unjustified,” says Tobita Chow, the executive director of Justice is Global. “That is a myth that’s grounded in racist tropes and isn’t going to serve the purposes of US national security.”

Update, May 16, 4 pm ET: This story was originally published on May 11 and has been updated with additional provisions in the law.