Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams is concerned about the prying eyes of the Chinese Communist Party in Georgians' online data, as well as alleged acquisition of farmland in the state. Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

With abortion, inflation and health care looming large in the Georgia gubernatorial race, there wouldn’t seem to be room for another wedge issue from the realm of international affairs. 

But in recent weeks, Democratic hopeful Stacey Abrams has injected an unlikely entrant into the conversation: China. 

Ms. Abrams has painted her incumbent opponent, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, as irresponsibly pandering to Chinese investors and putting Georgians’ security and that of the nation at risk. 

Her claims, in some cases false and in others omitting key context, show how the consensus counting China as a strategic rival is influencing state-level races, which are often insulated from the election-year China-bashing common in national politics. 

In an interview with Fox News Digital, on Twitter and in their first first debate, Ms. Abrams claimed that Mr. Kemp was selling off Georgia farmland to the Chinese Communist Party, parroting a concern raised by national Republicans that Chinese companies are buying up American agricultural property to spy on the U.S. military. 

She seemed to conflate two issues — Georgia’s use of the popular WeChat messaging app to tell its investment story in China and the broader issue of foreign ownership of farmland in the state — to weave the cautionary narrative. 

“Agriculture is our No. 1 industry, and Georgia is home to 13 military installations. The fact that the state of Georgia is working with the Chinese Communist Party, using one of their technologies that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have warned is very much a national security threat, should be of great concern to every Georgian,” Ms. Abrams said of WeChat, which was nearly blocked by the Trump administration over data-security concerns before gaining a reprieve after protests by Chinese-Americans. 

The Georgia Department of Economic Development does use WeChat, a super app with more than a billion users run by private Chinese Internet giant Tencent, to disseminate information in Chinese language about investment successes. But the account is operated by a third-party marketing firm and is not hosted on state servers. 

Ironically, some local Chinese-Americans say, they have used WeChat here in Georgia to organize on behalf of Ms. Abrams. 

Georgia State University political science professor Professor Andrew Wedeman, an expert on the Chinese Communist Party, says China’s slide toward authoritarianism has disappointed those who thought China’s economic opening would make it a more responsible global power. Instead, it has led to a more assertive country under Xi Jinping, who last month consolidated power in an unprecedented third term and made clear his ambition to challenge Western hegemony.  

All that has made the country even easier to paint as a bogeyman, Dr. Wedeman said. 

“It’s easy to do; it is the second largest military power in the world, it’s an economic rival. Our relationship with them is pretty bad, so if you’re going to accuse someone of colluding with the foreign power against the interests of the United States; China and Russia are the obvious targets,” he said. 

Foreigners and Farmland

In the debate, Ms. Abrams falsely claimed that the Chinese Communist Party has gained access to a million acres in Georgia, an assertion perhaps stemming from a misreading of national figures. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does track foreign ownership of American agricultural lands, and has noted a marked rise in Chinese ownership of American farmland in the decade leading up to 2020, the last year for which numbers were compiled. And Ms. Abrams is correct that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have raised alarm over the increase. 

But some context is important: Chinese entities owned less than 1 percent of the 37.6 million foreign-held agricultural acres in the United States, which itself is just 2.9 percent of all privately held farmland and 1.7 percent of all land in the United States. 

Even with these minuscule proportions, a USDA report tracked a “surge” in Chinese ownership that seems logical based on its own research — that the food needs in the country with the world’s largest population are growing even as its base of arable land is shrinking.  

Chinese-owned land in the U.S. grew from 13,720 acres in 2010 to 352,140 acres in 2020, a nearly 20-fold increase on the small baseline. But three-quarters of that total comes from a single acquisition: In 2013, Henan, China-based pork producer Shuanghui purchased Smithfield Farms, acquiring 146,000 acres nationwide in a $7.1 billion deal that required clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and disclosures to the USDA. 

As for deeper concerns, the USDA flagged the Shuanghui founder’s longterm membership in the Chinese Communist Party, without mentioning that many corporate executives in China maintain party membership in a country where staying on the right side of government can be an existential matter. 

The USDA did note that Chinese entities have been caught trying to steal genetically modified seed technology from the U.S. It also flagged a purchase of 370 acres for feed processing near an Air Force based in North Dakota, which some have cautioned could be used for spying. And it have remarked on the relatively high proportion of Chinese-owned land classified as “other” without more detail, saying this presents a “transparency issue” for the U.S.

What does this have to do with Georgia? 

The state does have more than 1 million acres owned by foreigners, but that is just 3.6 percent of its 30.8 million acres of private agricultural land. Of the small proportion owned by foreigners, most are claimed by Western European and Canadian investors.

Ms. Abrams provided no evidence for her claim that Mr. Kemp was ceding land to the Chinese Communist Party and didn’t respond to multiple requests for clarification and comment. 

Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell said Ms. Abrams sought to deflect attention from her own platform in light of what he said was record-setting investment attraction during Mr. Kemp’s first term. 

“None of that would have been possible if Stacey Abrams were governor. At every turn, she championed job-killing positions like higher taxes, more regulations, and keeping Georgia’s economy in lockdown throughout the pandemic. With record low unemployment and more Georgians in the workforce than ever, our state is weathering the Democrat-created economic crisis because we said no to everything Abrams wanted to do,” Mr. Mitchell said. 

Audrey Haynes, a University of Georgia political science professor, said Ms. Abrams may have been aiming to appeal to potential swing voters in the rural parts of the state, particularly given that Republicans have sought to smear primary opponents by linking them to Chinese Communist Party. 

“I think that this messaging attempt was geared toward rural Georgia, who has fairly conservative, pro-America First leanings,” Dr. Haynes said. “And since a few already have some potential distrust of the governor because they like former President Trump very strongly, and Trump is very anti-China, this issue – ‘allowing’ rural farmland to be ‘bought by the Chinese Communist Party’ — might raise concerns among those rural voters.” 

She added that the message could strike a chord given that the issue has been shown to resonate on both sides of the aisle.

“Having your farmland owned by foreign entities, particularly those hostile to you, is problematic, and a question of national security, and there is bipartisan support for tighter limits on who owns American farmland. (Former Republican Vice President) Mike Pence has been someone who articulated this issue. So has (Democratic) U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren,” Dr. Haynes said.

China’s Outsized Economic Impact on Georgia

Ms. Abrams’s remarks could backfire, however, with a key constituency. While for most the issue was a momentary departure in an otherwise domestically focused debate, it did not go unnoticed by Chinese-Americans in Georgia, including many of Ms. Abrams’ supporters. 

Jian Ni, president of the Chinese Business Association of Atlanta, told Global Atlanta that the Chinese-American community was weary from four years of having their loyalties questioned because of their ancestry under the Trump administration. 

“Whoever is talking about or bashing China, it’s going to affect us. We’re going to be looking at it like that,” said Mr. Ni, who planned to lodge his concerns with Ms. Abrams directly in a virtual call with community leaders. 

He added that Chinese investors who might otherwise be motivated to bring job-creating investment to the United States were being discouraged by heightened tensions. 

As with the U.S., he said, it’s important not to lump common Chinese citizens in with the policies of their national government. Many non-state-owned Chinese companies, he added, are following market trends rather than government directives, despite the outsized and growing role the Communist Party plays in the economy. 

“America is still a very stable country, and private property is strictly protected, and (Chinese companies) feel safe to have investment here, and that benefits everyone here,” he said, noting that Ms. Abrams’s goal of helping the most vulnerable Georgians requires driving economic growth. “If we’re going to have a more equitable society, we have to have business.”

Dr. Wedeman added a similar note about Chinese scholars and graduate students who have been treated with increasing suspicion despite their contributions to the American economy.

An expert on corruption in China, Dr. Wedeman said it’s inevitable in an era of strategic rivalry that some scholars — and perhaps purchasers of farmland — will feed intelligence back to China. The question is “how paranoid are you?” and how many non-agents get swept up in the rush to address valid security concerns.

Ms. Abrams, meanwhile, did not respond to questions on whether she would cease her use of TikTok, another Chinese-owned app, which is much more popular than WeChat in the United States, with tens of millions of users. 

Owned by ByteDance Inc., the company has been flagged by regulators over the threat of feeding user data back to the Chinese Communist Party. Most recently, one of the Federal Communications Commission’s five commissioners — Trump-appointed Brendan Carr — recently said the app should be banned outright. ByteDance counters that it hosts all non-Chinese TikTok user data outside of China and that it provides none of the feared “backdoors” to the Chinese government. Ms. Abrams has more than 194,000 followers on TikTok. 

For Georgia, how the bilateral relationship develops with China will be crucial to the economy.

Employment by Chinese investors remains small relative to other partner nations, but China is by far the state’s largest trading partner, accounting for $27.86 billion in imports and exports (mostly imports) in 2021. Mexico is a distant No. 2 at $15.5 billion. 

Even as many manufacturers move to diversify away from China, trade with the country remains vital for keeping the Georgia ports (and the jobs it supports) running, as well as for providing components that help the state’s manufacturers compete in a world that, while recalibrating, is still globally connected.

Georgia maintains an export-promotion office in Shanghai run by the consulting firm Tractus Asia. Its physical office in Qingdao has been closed, though the state maintains its relationship with Shandong province through a subnational group of states and provinces known as the Regional Leaders Summit. Stella Xu, based in Atlanta, is tasked with China initiatives including inbound investment for the economic development department.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...