Gov. DeSantis, legislative Republicans target Chinese government over alleged espionage, trade-secrets theft

By: - March 1, 2021 5:20 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative Republicans appeared at a news conference on March 1, 2021, to announce legislation targeting espionage by countries including China. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis and House leaders announced a crackdown on what they called attempts by the Chinese and other governments to sew influence and steal trade secrets through Florida colleges, universities, and state and local agencies.

Legislation being drawn up for the legislative session that begins on Tuesday would sharply restrict cooperation between state entities and the government or related entities of China, but the language would also apply to Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.

But the Republicans focused mostly on China — which former President Donald Trump singled out for opprobrium while in office — during a news conference in the Cabinet Chamber. Other Florida Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have also criticized the Chinese government.

Also present during the news conference were House Speaker Chris Sprowls and House and Senate sponsors of the legislation, which didn’t appear to have been filed yet.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s mass infiltration and theft of American research is well-documented, resulting in numerous arrests at college campuses across the country just within the last couple of years,” the governor said.

“It’s high time we tackled these issues and eliminated any tolerance of clandestine foreign influence in our schools,” he said.

“It sounds like an Ian Fleming novel, but in fact here in Florida it is very real,” Sprowls said. “China is engaged in an aggressive propaganda and espionage campaign right here in the state of Florida.”

The initiative marks another foray by DeSantis and legislative Republicans into an area usually reserved to the federal government, as when they announced plans to crack down on Big Tech for what they consider censorship of conservatives and abuse of users’ personal information.

The new legislation would boost screening of overseas applicants for university research positions; require scrutiny of overseas travel; and require reporting by higher education of overseas gifts of $50,000 or more. State inspectors general would conduct random audits.

Additionally, state and local agencies would be required to disclose grants, gifts, or anything else worth more than $50,000 from overseas sources and would be barred from accepting donations or entering agreements to set up “propaganda missions” involving the named countries.

Violations would be met with penalties equal to 105 percent of any grant or gift, and they can’t pay with state funds. The attorney general could bring actions against violators.

Private companies that want to do business with the state would have to disclose financial ties to any of the countries or their agents.

Finally, the package would boost penalties for trade-secrets theft or trafficking in trade secrets, and allow state courts to issue injunctions against improper use of trade secrets of assess royalties for their use.

DeSantis specifically mentioned the Confucian Institute, which offers Chinese cultural and language programs on U.S. campuses. According to a Human Rights Watch report, colleges have been ending relationships with the organization under prodding from the Trump administration and out of concern about Chinese human rights violations.

Miami-Dade College kicked its institute off campus in 2019 under political pressure, the Miami Herald reported. A former University of Florida professor was charged with fraud last month for allegedly accepting a federal grant while concealing the Chinese source of other support for his research, as the Florida Times Union reported.

Sprowls himself initiated a committee probe of the University of Central Florida after four professors with ties to China resigned or were fired amid fears of theft of research with national security implications, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Additionally, administrators at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa were ousted for alleged failure to disclose receiving money connected to Chinese programs to recruit U.S. researchers to work in China. (See this Tampa Bay Times report.)

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.