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A Sign of the Times

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This is a different time than, say, 10 years ago, when Arkansas couldn’t get enough of China.

Courting Chinese direct investment was a major part of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s economic development strategy. Our Arkansas Business archive is littered with the names of Chinese firms that announced, to great fanfare and millions of dollars in state incentives, manufacturing operations throughout the state.

Despite the success that many of those Chinese entities have enjoyed in Arkansas, the business and political climate has changed dramatically, thanks to a trade war, a pandemic and renewed competition for global influence and economic power between China and the U.S.

That was apparent last week, when China and the threat it poses to Arkansas — real or imagined — was heavy in the air.

First, Attorney General Tim Griffin and Gov. Sarah Sanders announced at a news conference on Tuesday efforts to force a Chinese government-owned company to divest 160 acres of farmland in Craighead County.

Arkansas can do this under a law approved during the regular legislative session this year that prohibits parties subject to federal International Traffic in Arms Regulations from owning land in the state.

China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are among the countries subject to those regulations.

Other states have enacted similar laws, but Arkansas is the first to enforce it. The governor said that Chinese government-controlled companies are “stealing American research and telling our enemies how to target American farms. That is a clear threat to our national security and to our great farmers.”

Second, citizens in Arkansas County mobilized against the possibility of more crypto mines there — a worry driven in part by a fear of shadowy Chinese ownership. Stoking the flames: previous efforts by entities with Chinese owners (though not the Chinese government itself) to put mines in rural Arkansas, some successful. Another law passed during the regular session, putting limits on how municipalities can regulate crypto mines, has added a layer of anxiety to the debate.

I don’t mean to put a major Chinese business investing hundreds of millions and creating scores of jobs on an equal footing with a modest owner of farmland or the scattered LLCs controlling these irritating crypto mines. It’s apples and oranges.

But it’s quite a turnaround, having gone from welcoming Chinese investment just a decade ago to today making a big show of driving some of it out.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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