Gov. Ron DeSantis signs bills to curb foreign influence as he targets China

DeSantis used a bill signing event in Miami to allege a Chinese lab was the source of the pandemic.
Ron DeSantis in August 2020.
Ron DeSantis in August 2020. [ JOE BURBANK | TNS ]
Published June 7, 2021|Updated June 7, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed into law a pair of bills designed to curb the influence of foreign governments on state agencies and higher-education institutions, as he particularly targeted China.

The laws were crafted during the 2021 legislative session in response to high-profile Florida cases involving medical and academic researchers.

“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 while behind a podium proclaiming “Stop CCP Influence” at the Florida National Guard Robert A. Ballard Armory in Miami.

As support has grown in the scientific community to explore the possibility that COVID-19 emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, DeSantis also used the Miami appearance to allege that the lab was the source of the pandemic.

“It’s pretty clear that this was a virus that almost assuredly leaked out of this lab in Wuhan,” DeSantis said. “This is a lab where these scientists were working very closely with the Communist Party of China.”

China has repeatedly denied the lab was responsible for leaking the virus. Former President Donald Trump, a DeSantis political ally, has long charged that the lab was the source of the virus, and President Joe Biden last month called for further investigation based on U.S. intelligence.

Related: Debating the COVID-19 origins: what we know, what we don't | Politifact

Other possible explanations are that the virus was spread through wild animals such as bats.

“While two elements in the (intelligence community) lean toward the former scenario (zoonotic) and one leans more toward the latter (the lab leak) — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” Amanda Schoch, assistant director of national intelligence for strategic communications, said in a May 27 statement.

The bills that DeSantis signed Monday were unanimously approved by lawmakers during the legislative session that ended April 30.

One of the bills, dubbed the “Combating Corporate Espionage in Florida Act” (HB 1523), will take effect Oct. 1 and will lead to people facing second-degree felony charges for “trafficking in trade secrets.” If people are found to have trafficked in trade secrets to benefit a foreign government, the penalty would be increased to a first-degree felony.

The other bill (HB 7017), which will go into effect July 1, creates new reporting requirements for entities seeking grants or contracts from the state.

Under the measure, such entities as state agencies and universities will be required to report receiving gifts or grants “from any foreign source” valued at $50,000 or more.

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People and entities seeking grants or contracts from the state of more than $100,000 will be required to disclose contracts, donations or grants linking them to China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

State universities and other entities with research budgets of $10 million or more also will have to create an “international travel approval and monitoring program” under the measure.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, pointed to inappropriate ties to Chinese entities that led to the resignation of top officials at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center in 2019 as an example of the impact on Florida taxpayers. Moffitt receives state tax dollars.

Related: As coronavirus spread, Moffitt Cancer Center's China scandal faded

“It is used to go into our research institutions and to steal from Florida taxpayers, to steal our hard-working intellectual property to bring it back to China, so that they can use that against American researchers, that they can use that against American businesses and beat America on the world stage,” Sprowls said. “And that’s what today is all about.”

Sprowls also referred to the U.S. Department of Justice in February indicting former University of Florida professor and researcher Lin Yang, a 43-year-old Chinese national accused of fraudulently obtaining $1.75 million in grant money from the National Institutes of Health.

Investigators said Yang was awarded grant money to develop “an imaging informatics tool for muscles known as ‘Muscleminer’” and worked on the project from 2014 to 2019. But Yang simultaneously had launched a business in China, and according to the Department of Justice, “promoted his business in China by relating that its products were the result of years of research supported by millions of dollars of U.S. government funding.”

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida