Gov. Ron DeSantis took aim at China this week, accusing the nation’s Communist government of covering up the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and waging a campaign to steal Florida’s secrets.

DeSantis signed two bills that seek to tackle espionage and prevent foreign adversaries from stealing intellectual property.

“All we are doing today is saying enough is enough,” DeSantis said. “We have to start fighting back. Florida is doing that.”

The first bill toughens penalties for stealing a trade secret to benefit a foreign government. The second bill requires universities and colleges to disclose grants and donations of more than $50,000 from foreign governments. It also will implement extra vetting of foreign applicants for research positions.

The legislation highlights seven countries of concern: Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Venezuela.

At a news conference in Miami, DeSantis joined a nationwide GOP attack on China. He accused China of covering up the origins of coronavirus, saying the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan.

That scenario is one of two competing theories on the origins of COVID-19. The other prevailing theory is that the virus started from animals, possibly bats, and jumped to humans.

A World Health Organization-led team that included Chinese scientists concluded in March that a lab leak was an “extremely unlikely pathway.” That investigation, though, has faced calls for a more intensive inquiry, and President Joe Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate COVID-19 s origins.

On the issue of Chinese espionage, DeSantis included the bills as part of his legislative agenda, holding a news conference to push the measures just before the start of the legislative session in March. But House Speaker Chris Sprowls has been probing the issue since 2020, holding hearings with Florida universities and research institutions where intellectual property was stolen.

Four professors at the University of Central Florida with ties to Chinese institutions have been fired or resigned in the past five years. One of them was Xinzhang Wu, a 19-year veteran of UCF who fled to China as school officials sought to ask him about his employment at a Chinese university.

In another case, six researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center resigned in December 2019, following reports they didn’t disclose their ties to China.

In February a former University of Florida associate professor was indicted on six counts of wire fraud and four counts of making false statements to U.S. officials for fraudulently obtaining $1.75 million in grant money from the National Institutes of Health. The professor, Lin Yang, went to China in August 2019 and hasn’t returned since, according to the U.S. Department of Justice release announcing the indictment.

“These bills add new tools by which our state can combat the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) attempt to corrupt and infiltrate our premier research institutions and they reinforce our efforts to drive out illegal foreign actors who seek to steal from Florida’s taxpayers,” Sprowls said.

Skyler Swisher can be reached at [email protected], 561-243-6634 or @SkylerSwisher.

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