RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- In a session defined by partisan division, the Virginia General Assembly is finding some common ground when it comes to taking on China. Two bills backed by Governor Glenn Youngkin are poised to pass after winning a majority in the Democrat-led state Senate.
The effort picked up some momentum after a Chinese ‘spy balloon’ was shot down off the coast of South Carolina over the weekend. The incident has brought renewed attention to rising tensions between two superpowers on the world stage.
A bill from Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) aims to ban apps with Chinese ties, like TikTok and WeChat, from state government devices in Virginia. He introduced the legislation before the balloon swept across the United States but he said the incident injected urgency into the conversation.
“The Chinese government is focused on finding out information about the American government, state governments and citizens. It’s important that we take steps to protect them. It became apparent to a larger group of people that the time is now for us to take action,” McDougle said in an interview on Friday.
Still, the bill barely made it out of the state Senate alive on Tuesday. Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears cast a tie-breaking vote to pass the legislation after two Democrats–Senators Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and John Bell (D-Loudoun), sided with Republicans to support it.
McDougle said the bill would expand on a similar executive order that Governor Glenn Youngkin signed late last year.
But opponents called the measure inflexible and redundant. Critics disagreed with the process, not the substance of the bill. They said it made more sense to let the executive branch “do their job” with discretion, rather than cementing a ban in state law that could take a while to update.
“This is a feel good bill that allows some people to send a brochure that says we got tough on Communist China but it doesn’t do anything that isn’t already done in state code today,” Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said during a floor debate.
Youngkin debuted new tough-on-China talking points during his State of the Commonwealth address last month. The focus is a growing fixture for GOP lawmakers nationwide ahead of the presidential election in 2024. Youngkin has not ruled out a bid, but has repeatedly said his focus is on Virginia.
“’Made in Virginia’ cannot be a front for the Chinese Communist Party,” Youngkin said in a campaign-style advertisement pinned on his personal Twitter account. “Virginians, not the CCP, should own the rich and vibrant agricultural lands God has blessed us with.”
Youngkin echoed that message during an appearance on Fox News earlier this week, which was criticized by the Democratic Party of Virginia.
“Youngkin dodged the direct question about how much land the CCP actually owns, and then he suggests China is attempting to buy frontage property outside the Pentagon. This is just another example of Youngkin making policy decisions without first equipping himself with an adequate understanding of reality, pretending to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, to further his own political ambitions,” Liam Watson, Press Secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a statement.
Youngkin controversially stopped Virginia’s effort to recruit a Ford electric car battery plant partnering with a Chinese company, calling it a “Trojan Horse” and a national security threat.
Youngkin later urged the General Assembly to pass a bill banning foreign adversaries from acquiring or transferring any interest in Virginia’s agricultural land. It would also require an annual state report showing the current status of foreign ownership.
Senator Richard Stuart (R-King George), who sponsored the bill, said this would apply to several foreign adversaries, including Russia, China, Iran and Cuba. He said the bill aligns with the federal government’s list of countries that have a long standing pattern of adverse activity towards the United States.
In an unusual step, Stuart said the bill would apply to deals retroactively going back to Jan. 1 2023, but he said he is unaware of any contracts that would be scrapped because of the change.
The bill passed in the Democrat-led Senate on a 23-16 vote. It’s expected to get a final vote in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates early next week before heading to Governor Youngkin’s desk.
Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who voted against the bill, said the language is overly broad and could hurt Virginia’s economy.
“I’m no fan of the Chinese Communist government at all but, to just simply say all agricultural land is off limits, that to me is an overreach,” Petersen said. “I think we’re denying very helpful foreign capital that could be coming into our state.”