Amid spy balloon fears, California bill bars China from owning land near military bases

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Just days after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon capable of collecting communications signals, two California lawmakers have introduced a bill intended to block hostile foreign governments from conducting surveillance of sensitive American locations.

Assembly Bill 475, co-introduced by Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, prohibits any foreign government from purchasing, acquiring, leasing or holding a financial interest in any property located within 50 miles of a U.S. military or California National Guard base.

The bill exempts any land already held by foreign governments prior to Jan. 1, 2024, and does not conflict with existing U.S. treaty obligations. Mathis’ chief of staff, Justin Boman, told The Bee in an email that the bill may be amended to replace the words “foreign government” with the words “prohibited foreign actor.”

“The intent is to prohibit nations that pose a national security risk to the United States, not our allies, from purchasing these lands,” Boman said.

The bills authors point out that foreign powers buying up land near U.S. military installations isn’t a hypothetical.

Last year, a company linked to the Chinese government bought 300 acres of land within 20 minutes of Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. Neither state nor federal law could prevent the purchase from going through, the lawmakers said.

“This isn’t an isolated incident. China and other hostile foreign governments continually commit acts of espionage against Americans and our military. Just think about the recent spy balloon or Tiktok, or foreign interference in our elections,” they said.

In a statement, Mathis voiced his concern about the possibility of China or another foreign government owning land near one of California’s dozens of military bases.

“As the first millennial combat veteran with a Purple Heart elected to state office in the country, I’m aware of the sensitive materials and resources stored on site at our bases, knowledge which foreign governments seek to obtain,” Mathis said.

AB 475 isn’t the California Legislature’s first attempt at barring foreign governments from owning property in the state.

Last year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1084, which blocked foreign governments from owning agricultural land in California. Despite passing both houses of the Legislature with unanimous support, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the legislation.

In his veto message, Newsom wrote that the data reporting required by the bill would “create new and arduous responsibilities” beyond the authority of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“In spite of this, the bill made evident the disturbing realization that foreign governments have near unhindered access to our resources and personnel,” Mathis said.

The Chinese government is a cause of concern for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this legislative session. Legislators also are considering bipartisan bills to ban TikTok — which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance — from state-issued smartphones.