Florida moves against foreign theft of intellectual property

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Monday a pair of bills focused on “nefarious foreign influence and corporate espionage” — particularly singling out China, which he accused of stealing intellectual property and infiltrating broad sectors of American society, especially academia.

“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 during a news conference in Miami.

The Republican governor, who has sought to seize the national stage as he considers a run for president in 2024, further waded into the international arena during the bill signings by repeating assertions by Republicans nationwide that the global coronavirus pandemic originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and that the communist government in Beijing was behind a cover-up.

Democratic President Joe Biden last month ordered U.S. intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, including any possibility the trail might lead to a Chinese laboratory. At the time of his announcement, Biden said two intelligence agencies were leaning more toward the initial theory that the virus spread through human contact with an infected animal. One agency leaned more toward the lab theory. Neither theory had more than “low or moderate confidence,” he said.

The bipartisan bills signed by DeSantis reinforce contentions by many Republicans that the Chinese government has been infiltrating, or exerting its influence, on many segments of U.S. society — including the entertainment industry, the news media and especially academia.

One of the bills signed into law by DeSantis would require universities to report any gifts of $50,000 from a foreign source and would compel them to more thoroughly screen foreign applicants for research positions. Research institutes would have to report all work-related travel to foreign counties.

Companies that want to do business with China — as well as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela — would also have to disclose any financial ties in those countries in excess of $50,000.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has called counterintelligence and economic espionage by China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality.”

Earlier this year, U.S. officials accused a former University of Florida professor and researcher — a Chinese citizen — of fraudulently obtaining $1.8 million in federal grant money while concealing support he received from the Chinese government and a company that he founded in China to profit from that research.

The case follows a Justice Department initiative, launched in 2018, to boost its focus on countering economic espionage and theft of trade secrets by Chinese interests.

Other cases were highlighted during legislative hearings, including the case of a Chinese citizen living in Orlando whom the government accused of smuggling underwater drone parts, from 2002 to 2014, to help a state-owned university in China that was doing military research.

“Today, we expose and stop foreign adversaries and their agents from walking through the front doors of our corporations and universities and sneaking out the back with our taxpayer-funded research,” House Speaker Sprowls said in a statement.

Another measure signed into law by the governor would enhance penalties for the theft or sale of trade secrets if it benefits a foreign government or entity.