Across the country, there is a new kind of land grab going on that may surprise you. Millions of acres are being bought up by foreign investors, including those from one of our biggest adversaries: China. And no state is more impacted than Texas, where Scott Thuman reports today’s cover story.
Southwest Texas, out past the oil derricks and cattle ranches, as you approach the Mexican border, you find scrubby ground that's hard to work.
But even in a place the locals call “the middle of nowhere,” land is in high demand. Like these 140,000 acres, bought in 2018 by a billionaire from America's number one international rival.
Beau Nettleton: All that hill up there is Chinese-owned.
Beau Nettleton is a rancher and commissioner in Val Verde County.
Scott: You never thought you’d look out at this horizon and say, “That’s Chinese-owned out there"?
Nettleton: No, no.
But then again, there's a lot that surprised Nettleton about his new neighbor. The Chinese real estate tycoon, who bought it for millions of dollars, said he wanted to build giant wind turbines to sell power to the Texas grid.
Scott: Let's talk frankly about your feelings about the idea of any representation of China having large pieces of property out here. What do you think of it?
Nettleton: I think it's wrong. I think it's wrong that any country that is an adversary of the United States should have the right to buy anything in the United States. I mean, I think if you looked at it on a nationwide basis, you'd find out that the Chinese probably control a lot more than you realize. The federal government has a job to protect the United States, to protect and defend, and they're just allowing whoever shows up to do whatever they want, and they don't even know what the hell's going on.
As a direct result of the wind power plan, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law preventing other nations and companies of certain hostile countries from owning or having access to the state's critical infrastructure, including the power grid.
Still, some think Texas needs to go further.
Lois Kolkhorst / Texas state senator: China's gone on a buying spree here in Texas. So Chinese interests own more land in Texas than any other state in the union.
Republican Senator Lois Kolkhorst pushed a new, stricter law, banning anyone from countries the U.S. identifies in its National Threat Assessment — Russia, Iran, North Korea, and yes, China — from buying any Texas property.
Kolkhorst: I came at it from a national security issue. This is about protecting our homeland and saying that, you know, Texas is a strategic state in our nation, and that we need to hit the pause button and make sure that we know what's going on.
Her fears literally rose when news broke in February of that Chinese spy balloon listening in from above as it traveled across the U.S., pausing over strategic military bases, before President Biden eventually had it shot down.
Nettleton points out the Chinese-owned land next to his property is also close to a busy U.S. Air Force base. Another Chinese land investment, this time in North Dakota, with plans for a $700 million corn mill, was also within miles of an air base. It was going ahead until the Pentagon called it a security risk.
And Chinese interests aren't just over land. A decade ago, they bought Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork producer.
Not long ago, figures showed that foreign investors held around 40 million acres. That’s about 3% of U.S. privately-held agricultural land, and of that, China owned about 1%. While some might say that’s proportionally a small number, over the last decade, it has grown rapidly, and no government agency has a clear understanding of how all that property is being used.
Eighteen states currently have some form of restrictions for foreign ownership of land, but the rules and penalties vary widely. In Washington, a committee on foreign investment, known as CFIUS, reviews and can block foreign purchases and investments, but it doesn’t have jurisdiction over all property deals.
Back in Texas, some argue the federal government shouldn’t be able to tell Americans who they sell to if the price is right — particularly farmers, who own such large tracts of land.
Scott: Because personal property rights is the other side of that coin.
Russell Boening / Rancher: That’s right. That’s right.
Rancher Russell Boening is president of the Texas Farm Bureau.
Scott: And if you're selling property and someone's offering more money, it's hard to turn that down, isn't it?
Boening: That’s correct.
Scott: That's where the debate lies.
Boening: That’s where the debate lies.
Boening says farmers' desire to choose who they sell land to doesn't diminish their worries about increasing ownership from so-called hostile nations.
Boening: There's concern from landowners about certain — especially certain foreign ownership. China always seems to come up first and foremost. And I think a lot of farmers and ranchers are looking at it from a national security point of view as well. I mean, farmers and ranchers are pretty much patriotic people.
But for some, the move is seen as nothing more than discrimination. Many Asian Americans have called plans to ban land sales to Chinese interests, racism.
Democratic Representative Gene Wu, himself Chinese-born and raised in the U.S., has led the pushback in the state assembly.
Scott: So you're saying they're punishing the wrong group?
Gene Wu: Exactly. Anyone who is here is a refugee from those places. You're literally punishing the people fleeing those oppressive governments for the actions of those oppressive governments. That's, that's, I mean, that's painfully ironic.
Scott: Do you think some Texans would be just fine with that?
Wu: I'm sure they are. I'm sure there's a lot of people who say there's too many Asian people here, there's too many Latinos, there's too many black people. We should get rid of them. There's plenty of people who say that, and what I say, and what a lot of people say is, that is not the American way.
Other critics say it’s reminiscent of the 1980s, when Japanese investors, flush with cash, started buying up American real estate and companies and flooding the market with Japanese-made products and prompting concerns then about foreign ownership.
Wu: It's not to say that we shouldn't be doing anything, right? But like, let's make sure that what we're doing doesn't end up hurting us more than it's helping us.
Kolkhorst agreed and has made changes to her bill, like allowing green card holders of Chinese descent to buy homes.
Kolkhorst: I will tell you, this is a tough conversation, but it is the right conversation for America to have.
Nettleton: It concerns me long-term because if we do wind up in a war with China, for whatever reason, and they control our supply chain, they control our food chain, they control our electrical chain, all they've got to do is flip a switch and America's in trouble.
As for that sweeping plot of land next to Beau Nettleton, the Chinese investor is now selling, but that doesn’t mean the worries will go with it.
Nettleton: This isn’t over by any form or fashion.
Sharyl (on-camera): I mean maybe it's just because we're now noticing, but it seems like a lot of states are suddenly addressing this issue at the same time.
Scott: Well, they are. Montana, for example, recently passed a law limiting what land foreign adversaries can buy near military bases. Now on a national level, Congress hasn't passed much yet — really anything — but most seem to agree that government needs to do a much better job tracking who owns what.