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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MONEY POLITICS

What the hullabaloo over donations means

By Samuel Gilston / Washington


YOU MAY NOT KNOW his name -- but most Americans do. John Huang was a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and an enthusiastic one. Maybe too enthusiastic. Some $1.5 million he solicited had to be returned after party officials could not determine where the money really came from. Huang was supposed to tap the Asian-American community for donations to President Bill Clinton’s party. But federal investigators want to know if Asian governments or businesses were behind some of the money. Such “laundering” of donations through Americans -- ethnic Asian or not -- is illegal.

Lobbying by foreign countries is commonplace in Washing-ton, D.C. Greenbacks often grease the way to smoother relationships. If anything, Asian governments -- with the notable exception of Taipei -- are novices at it. But the Asian connection has caused a hullabaloo. Much of the flak is political theater: Republicans are using the issue to bash the White House -- and Asia in general. It goes down well in middle Ameri-ca, not least because China, the new “evil empire,” is said to be a player, along with Indonesia and Thailand.

Huang is at the center of the controversy. On the periphery are Pauline Kanchanalak, a Washington lobbyist, and two ethnic Chinese businessmen, Johnny Chung and Charles Yah Lin Trie. Kancha-nalak is a Thai citizen, the others U.S. All four were certainly eager to get cozy with the White House. All four also have direct or indirect links with mainland businesses. The China factor got more interesting when the FBI said the Chinese had drawn up a list of 30 legislators they wanted to woo -- including Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich. Beijing has denied all the allegations.

Most other Asians wonder what all the fuss is about. “It is ridiculous to suggest the American government can be influenced by an amount of money like this,” says Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, referring to a donation of a couple of hundred thousand dollars which was tied to Indone-sia’s Lippo Group. While the controversy should not change basic policies toward Asia, it will dampen the willingness of some politicians to come out too strongly in support of actions favoring Asian countries or businesses. The administration’s plan to sell nine F-16 jets to Indonesia, for example, could stall.

Here’s one example of how things went. Kanchanalak had coffee with Clin-ton on June 18, 1996. It was the day she introduced a big client, tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont, to the president. Dhanin heads Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group, one of the largest investors in China, and a business adviser to Beijing. Soon after, Kanchanalak’s family donated $253,000 to the DNC. Huang was said to have arranged the meeting.

Kanchanalak says the money came from her mother-in-law. Dhanin said: “The check did not belong to CP.” He added that he sought Clinton’s view toward Asia, particularly China, but that there was “nothing political be-tween me and the president.”

Charoen Pokphand is not the only Asian company with links to China now under scrutiny. Huang’s ex- employer was Lippo, which has considerable interests on the mainland. Huang kept up contact with Lippo’s owners, the Riady family, while he was working in the Commerce Department and as a fund- raiser. Huang and the others insist they have done nothing illegal. Perhaps so, but in Washington, politics often determines what’s right or wrong.

-- With bureau reporting

Cast of Characters

John Huang Ex-chief of U.S. operations for Indone-sia’s Lippo Group and former administration official. Cen-tral figure in a Justice Department investigation of the do-nations. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has given back some $1.5 million he brought in.

Charles Yah Lin Trie Onetime Arkansas restaurant owner. Nearly $1 million of contributions raised by him have been refused. Said to be behind the visit to the White House of Wang Jun, head of CITIC, China’s top state investment company.

n n Johnny Chung Taiwan-born California businessman and Democratic fundraiser. Some of the money he generated has been returned. Arranged for six mainland Chinese businessmen to attend a Clinton radio address.

Pauline Kanchanalak Thai businesswoman and lobbyist. She and her relatives gave the DNC $253,000, since returned. Linked to Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand, one of the biggest investors in China.

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