DeSantis Signs Laws To Combat Chinese Influence At Florida Universities – Orlando Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two bills into law Monday designed to combat foreign influence in Florida’s universities from countries deemed hostile to the U.S., especially China, and crack down on theft of trade secrets and intellectual property.

“If you look right now, there is no single entity that exercises a more pervasive nefarious influence across a wide range of American industries and institutions than the Communist Party of China,” DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony at a Florida National Guard facility in Miami. “Academia is permeated with its influence.”

DeSantis bashed China for its handling of the COVID-19 virus, asserting it leaked from a lab, and decried the country’s influence among U.S. entertainment companies, two issues that have made headlines recently.

But the bills he signed, HB 7017 and HB 1523, were spurred by incidents over the past decade of Chinese nationals working at Florida colleges stealing sensitive materials and designs of military equipment.

Under HB 7017, Florida universities must report donations or gifts worth $50,000 or more from seven “foreign countries of concern” – China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela – twice each year, on Jan. 31 and July 31. Those that don’t disclose gifts must pay 105% of the value of the gift to the state.

Companies seeking to do business with the state for contracts worth $100,000 or more must also now disclose connections to the specified countries.

HB 1523 increases the penalties for trafficking in stolen trade secrets, making it a second-degree felony, and if a person intends to sell a trade secret to a foreign government, the offense would be upgraded to a first-degree felony.

DeSantis included the bills as part of his legislative agenda, holding a press conference to push the measures just before the start of the legislative session in March. But House Speaker Chris Sprowls has been probing the issue since 2020, holding hearings with Florida universities and research institutions where intellectual property was stolen.

Four professors at the University of Central Florida with ties to Chinese institutions have been fired or resigned in the past five years. One of them was Xinzhang Wu, a 19-year veteran of UCF who fled to China as school officials sought to ask him about his employment at a Chinese university.

In another case, six researchers at Moffit Cancer Center resigned in December 2019, following reports they didn’t disclose their ties to China.

In February a former University of Florida associate professor was indicted on six counts of wire fraud and four counts of making false statements to U.S. officials for fraudulently obtaining $1.75 million in grant money from the National Institutes of Health. The professor, Lin Yang, went to China in August 2019 and hasn’t returned since, according to the U.S. Department of Justice release announcing the indictment.

“These bills add new tools by which our state can combat the CCP’s attempt to corrupt and infiltrate our premier research institutions and they reinforce our efforts to drive out illegal foreign actors who seek to steal from Florida’s taxpayers,” Sprowls said.

DeSantis said the bills were more timely because of the wide influence China has in U.S. cultural institutions, particularly in “corporate media” and entertainment companies.

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“You look at corporate media and the entertainment industry in this country – they are in the pocket of the Communist Party of China,” DeSantis said. “If Hollywood comes up with a movie that the CCP doesn’t like that gets censored. They are not going to run afoul of that orthodoxy.”

DeSantis didn’t mention any specific company or incident, but China’s influence was highlighted last month when John Cena, star of the “Fast & Furious 9″ movie distributed by Universal Films, made an obsequious video apologizing to Chinese people in Mandarin for calling Taiwan a country as part of a promotional interview for the movie in Taiwanese media.

China’s government considers Taiwan, an independent island with its own government, part of its territory.

In another high-profile incident last year, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan was partially filmed in Xinjiang province in western China, where many Western governments have condemned China for human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims there. The movie’s credits thanked China. DeSantis’ political committee has received $100,000 from Disney since 2019.

grohrer@orlandosentinel.com