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PolitiFact FL: Ramaswamy attack on DeSantis' anti-China land law missed some details

Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens.
Rebecca Blackwell
Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

MIAMI — Defending his record on his home turf, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted a new state law on China during the third Republican presidential debate.

"In Florida, I banned China from buying land in this state … and we kicked the Confucius Institutes out of our universities," DeSantis said to applause, referring to Chinese government-funded nonprofits that promote Chinese language and culture. "We recognized the threat, and we’ve acted swiftly and decisively. "

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said this wasn’t the whole story.

"What you left out, though, Ron, and be honest about it, there was a lobbying-based exemption in that bill that allowed Chinese nationals to buy land within a 20-mile radius of a military base, lobbied for by one of your donors," Ramaswamy said in the Nov. 8 debate.

"That’s not true," DeSantis replied.

PolitiFact wanted to sort out the cross talk and figure out who was right. Was a law restricting land purchases by Chinese nationals loosened to appease a DeSantis donor?

PolitiFact reached out to Ramaswamy’s campaign but did not hear back.

DeSantis’ governor’s office pointed us to a Nov. 8 post on X by spokesperson Jeremy Redfern, who shared a map that highlighted the entire state of Florida, writing, "The area highlighted on this map is where the CCP cannot buy land in Florida." (CCP refers to the "Chinese Communist Party.")

What we know about the Florida law

Senate Bill 264 restricts many Chinese citizens from buying real estate in Florida. DeSantis signed the bill in May after it passed the Florida Legislature, and it became law in July.

The law restricts citizens of seven foreign "countries of concern" — China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela — from owning or buying land in Florida. The law’s final version says they cannot buy property within 10 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure, such as ports, airports and power substations. Property buyers or sellers who violate the restriction could face up to 60 days in prison and a $500 fine.

A portion of the law targets people associated with the Chinese government as well as Chinese citizens who aren’t permanent U.S. residents and who say their primary residence is in China. It prohibits these people from buying any property in Florida.

Sellers who knowingly violate this part of the law could face up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine; Chinese nationals could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The law includes an exception for people who have nontourist visas or have been granted asylum. These people may buy "one residential property up to two acres" that isn’t on or within 5 miles of a military installation.

The measure also requires American citizens who aim to buy Florida property to sign an affidavit attesting they aren’t prevented from purchasing the real estate under the new law.

How the law changed to benefit a past DeSantis donor

Early versions of the legislation were tighter. As filed, the bill would have essentially barred Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from the six other countries from buying any real estate within 20 miles of military bases and critical infrastructure.

That would have covered most of South Florida.

This earlier bill created complications for Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel, a hedge fund and financial services company. Griffin plans to build a new Citadel headquarters in Miami. Because he employs many international workers, he worried the law would prohibit them from buying property in the area, Bloomberg News reported in August.

The story detailed how Griffin assembled a network of people to rework the proposed law and narrow restrictions for people with work permits. Citadel hired Capital City Consulting, one of Florida's top lobbying and public affairs companies, to help secure changes.

Citadel confirmed Bloomberg News’ reporting with PolitiFact.

The version that became law cuts the restricted area for residential property purchases to 5 miles from military bases for verified visa holders and asylees.

Griffin’s support for DeSantis has changed

Griffin, who moved to Florida from Illinois in 2022, donated $5 million in 2021 to a political action committee that backed DeSantis’ reelection campaign, campaign finance records show. But he hasn’t given money to support DeSantis’ presidential run.

There is friction in the relationship. Griffin in September told CNBC he wasn’t backing DeSantis in the race and was remaining on the sidelines of the GOP presidential primary, adding that DeSantis was leading a "pointless" fight with The Walt Disney Co.

"Florida is defined by its promise of freedom and economic opportunity, and our State government must continue to reflect and uphold these ideals," Griffin said in an emailed statement to PolitiFact.

"We support the freedom of individuals who are lawfully working in the U.S. to purchase homes and we will continue to advocate for those rights."

Legal challenges to the law

The U.S. Justice Department has argued that the Florida law is unconstitutional. News reports have documented how prospective buyers are backing out of home deals, and some real estate brokers have said they feel forced to racially profile people and turn down business, NBC News reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing four Chinese citizens who live in Florida and a real estate company that serves Chinese and Chinese American clients in a lawsuit against the state, which was filed in May. The ACLU argues the law is unconstitutional because it violates the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection and procedural due process.

"They will be forced to cancel purchases of new homes, register their existing properties with the State under threat of severe penalties, and face the loss of significant business," the complaint said."The law stigmatizes them and their communities, and casts a cloud of suspicion over anyone of Chinese descent who seeks to buy property in Florida."

The lawsuit describes the exception for those with nontourist visas or asylees as "incredibly narrow."

There are more than 20 military bases in Florida, many within 5 miles of city centers including Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola and Panama City.

Many other states have enacted laws to regulate Chinese nationals’ property purchases, , including Alabama, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Virginia. At least 20 more states have introduced similar bills that would regulate or restrict foreign ownership of real estate. Florida’s law is considered one of the strictest.

Our ruling

Ramaswamy said Florida’s anti-Chinese land law has an exemption that "allowed Chinese nationals to buy land within a 20-mile radius of a military base" lobbied for by one of DeSantis’ donors.

A wealthy businessman and generous donor to DeSantis’ gubernatorial reelection campaign successfully lobbied for looser restrictions on land purchases to benefit his international employees with work permits.

But Ramaswamy missed some details. First, the man has not supported DeSantis' presidential campaign. Also, people associated with the Chinese Communist Party, or Chinese citizens who say their primary residence is in China, are not permitted to buy any Florida land.

The law separately restricts non-U.S. citizens from "foreign countries of concern," which includes China, from buying real estate in Florida within 10 miles of a military base or critical infrastructure site. If foreign buyers qualify for an exception, they can purchase "one residential property up to two acres" that is outside of a 5-mile radius of military bases.

The distance rule was reduced from the original version, which blocked purchases within a 20-mile radius of military installations and critical infrastructure sites.

Ramaswamy’s claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Samantha Putterman is a fact-checker for PolitiFact based in Florida reporting on misinformation with a focus on abortion and public health.
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