After his employer implemented a return-to-office policy last year, Jin Bian decided to cut down his one-hour commute by purchasing a house closer to the office in Tampa, Florida.

Then, he was told the purchase might get him prison time.

“That was really shocking to me. It’s just purchasing property,” Bian, originally from Nanjing, China, said. “Once I learned that, I didn’t even bother to look anymore.”

Bian, a 31-year-old software engineer who has lived in the US for 12 years, holds an H-1B visa, which allows companies to employ foreign workers. However, for nearly a year, it has been a crime for him to purchase a home in Florida after the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a law restricting Chinese nationals without US green cards from purchasing property in the state.

Bian and other Florida residents told CNN that the rules have fostered uneasiness and confusion among ethnic Chinese people living in the state. Some say the law has damaged their businesses, while others are considering leaving Florida altogether. The law underscores the heightened tensions between the two largest economies in the world during a US presidential election year.

Bian said he had begun reconsidering his life in Florida. He isn’t alone. Since Florida Senate Bill 264 went into effect on July 1, 2023, Chinese citizens without green cards face a felony charge and possible prison time if they purchase property in the state. Sellers and real estate agents can also be held liable under the law.

“We feel like we’re different from everyone else because of this type of law,” said Echo King, a US citizen born in China and president of the Florida Asian American Justice Alliance. “We feel like we’re not welcome.”

Chinese Citizens Barred from Buying Property in Florida

Under SB 264, citizens of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria are prohibited from buying property within 10 miles of any “military installation or critical infrastructure facility” in Florida. For Chinese citizens without permanent US residency, the law goes further, barring them from purchasing any property in the state.

“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” DeSantis said in a statement last year.

The law is currently being challenged in court, but several other states are considering similar laws.

Criticism and Legal Challenges

“Florida has gone far beyond what is necessary to combat the so-called CCP influence,” said Clay Zhu, an attorney who has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the state, challenging the law. “We think this is a form of discrimination based on race, national origin, and visa status.”

Zhu likened the law to past discriminatory laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act. He argues that there should be a distinction between the CCP and Chinese nationals.

The law specifically bans the “purchase or acquisition of real property” by “any person who is domiciled in the People’s Republic of China and who is not a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States.” However, the term “domiciled” isn’t fully defined in the law’s language.

Susan Li, a 47-year-old small business owner in Orlando, Florida, who holds a green card, said she “really felt the discrimination” when she learned about the bill.

Like Bian, Li had been searching for a new home when the law passed. Despite being a legal resident, her family decided to halt their housing search for fear of potential legal complications.

“I thought maybe it’s too much to bother, so I’m not looking right now,” she said. “No matter if I have a green card or I’m a citizen, I still have a Chinese face.”

Heightened Fears of Chinese Government Spying

The controversial law comes at a time of increasing tension between the US and China. Last year, fears of Chinese government spying in the US peaked after a Chinese surveillance balloon was discovered over Montana and shot down by the US.

In addition to allegations that Chinese-owned apps like TikTok are used for spying (which TikTok denies), US lawmakers have increasingly warned that Chinese purchases of agricultural land pose a national security threat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, China owns 349,442 acres of agricultural and non-agricultural land in the US, representing slightly less than 1% of all foreign-held land in the US.

“The Chinese Communist Party, a dangerous foreign adversary, should not own Virginia’s farmland,” Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin said on social media last year. “That’s common sense.”

To Bian, accusations of spying are offensive.

“We’re ordinary people. We don’t talk about these political things,” he said. “I think 99.99% of people here just want to have a good life.”