A Chinese national who made his fortune from online gambling has emerged as one of the most significant non-American holders of land in the U.S.
Chen Tianqiao owns 198,000 acres (80,127 hectares) of Oregon timberland, making him the country’s 82nd-largest property owner, according to the Land Report’s latest ranking.
Chen, 50, acquired the acreage from Fidelity National Financial Ventures for $85 million in 2015. Oregon tax records last month disclosed the name of the beneficial owner as Shanda Asset Management, the same moniker as Chen’s Singapore-based holding group.
His Oregon property makes him one of the biggest individual owners of American land by a non-U.S. citizen. Only the Irving family of Canada — No. 6 on the Land Report’s list with over 1.2 million acres of Maine timberland — owns more.
Foreign ownership of U.S. land — particularly land used for farming — has become a sensitive political issue in recent years. About 40 million acres of American agricultural land was owned by non-U.S. interests as of 2021, according to the most recent Department of Agriculture data, with entities from China owning the equivalent of 0.03% of all U.S. farmland.
Some lawmakers have pushed for national rules restricting foreign investment in U.S. agricultural property. In July the Senate voted to ban the sale of farmland beyond a certain acreage or value to people or businesses from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, but the measure wasn’t ultimately signed into law. Almost half of all states have some sort of restrictions on foreign ownership.
Chen, a native of Zhejiang Province, started an online gambling company, Shanda Interactive, in 1999. Within five years it had become one of China’s largest internet companies and was listed on the Nasdaq in the U.S. Chen took the company private in 2012 and moved his holding group’s headquarters from China to Singapore.
His investments span public and private equities, venture capital and real estate, according to Shanda’s website. He and his wife, Chrissy Luo, made an initial $115 million donation to found the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology in 2016 with the mission of advancing understanding of the brain.
Ultrawealthy investors seeking an inflation hedge and uncorrelated assets have increasingly flocked to farmland and other rural properties in recent years. The average value of U.S. cropland jumped 8.1% last year and has risen by more than a third since 2020, according to the USDA.
The gains are driven by food demand and high inflation but also by interest in rarefied properties, like classic Western ranches, that offer recreation as well as investment return potential.
The country’s biggest landowner is the Emmerson family, owners of timberland empire Sierra Pacific Industries, followed by billionaires John Malone, Ted Turner and Stan Kroenke.