The evidence suggests that Bill Clinton tilted American policy sharply toward Beijing in exchange for financial support for his re-election.
It could have been Bill Clinton’s Watergate, a scandal marring his presidency far more seriously than his unseemly sexual dalliance with a 25-year old White House intern.
In 1993, at the behest of long-time Indonesian business associates, Mochtar Riady and Riady’s son James, the newly-elected president agreed to name John Huang to a top post as undersecretary of Asian affairs at the U.S. Commerce Department.
Huang, unbeknownst to Clinton, was no mere Chinese American financial whiz and enthusiast of the new administration. He was also a spy with ties to Chinese military intelligence.
To this day, no one seems to know how much damage Huang might have done to American national security while serving in the sensitive post where he had access to classified business intelligence at a time when China had begun intensively recruiting Chinese-Americans to engage in overseas espionage.
When the Justice Department began investigating the matter, it found a web of intrigue around not only Huang but a whole host of Chinese nationals that had cozied up to the Democratic National Committee and the Clintons in the 1990s, offering huge infusions of cash, sometimes in exchange for specific business or political favors.
Many of these figures also had ties to China’s Communist regime, often through other business intermediaries.
In the language of covert intelligence, these men – and in some cases women – were “cut-outs,” people who could operate on behalf of government officials, probing into the possibility of quid pro quo deals, all while maintaining “plausible deniability” of an association with officialdom.
In addition to Huang and Riady, dozens of others were implicated , including Johnny Chung, George Chu, and Maria Hsia, all of them major fundraisers not only for Clinton but for then-Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and later Vice–President Al Gore, who would run for president in 2000.
James Riady ended up funneled nearly $1 million in illegal campaign contributions to the Democrats between 1992 and 1996.
Huang later raised over $3 million in donations from the Asian-American community for Clinton’s 1996 re-election, much of it linked back to a shadowy network of businesses and military officers linked to the China’s Communist government.
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In many ways, the China connection was the beginning of the “pay-to-play” influence peddling scheme that would evolve into the Clinton Foundation, and emerge full-blown when Hillary Clinton was named US Secretary of State under Barack Obama.
But the effort to influence elections, using illicit cash that violated campaign financing rules, made the dealings not just unseemly – but potentially criminal, and gave Congress, by now dominated by the GOP, an extra incentive to investigate and to implicate Clinton and the Democrats.
It turned into a classic partisan battle. Republicans led by Senators Fred Thompson and Trent Lott saw a grand conspiracy, much as Democrats imagine with Donald Trump and the Russians. Democrats denied that the investigation would lead back to Beijing and did their best to close out the inquiry and absolve party officials of any wrongdoing.
And in a strong parallel to “Russia-Gate,” Republicans also tried to pressure Attorney General Janet Reno to name an Independent Counsel to investigate administration complicity. She refused, and once the GOP recaptured the White House in 2000, interest in Congress in pursuing the matter further soon withered.
In the end, no Democratic Party official was ever sanctioned for his or her role in “China-Gate.” Huang and 22 others were eventually prosecuted for making illegal campaign contributions but no charges of conspiracy were ever filed. Dozens of others implicated in the massive funding scheme fled the country and were never found, limiting the scope of the investigation.
And amazingly, the documented ties of Huang and others to Chinese intelligence (substantiated by the CIA) were never pursued further.
Today, “China-Gate” is barely remembered, but it’s a poignant reminder that superpower rivalry, clandestine political warfare and espionage can easily spill over into presidential politics.
And external influence on a sufficiently large scale is not without consequence: Under Clinton, there was a decided tilt in US policy toward China that some would argue ended up blinding America to Beijing’s expanding military ambitions.
Today, it remains to be seen if Trump’s friendly relations with Putin will actually result in more favorable policies toward Russia – thus far, there is little evidence of such a “tilt.”
And it’s not likely – for all the current exaggerated controversy – that “Russia-Gate” will end up damaging the incumbent administration all that much.
Here and there, Democrats or Republicans may cross a line of propriety, or in some cases, legality, and when it occurs, appropriate “scapegoats” will be found, and each party will seek to exploit the embarrassment of scandal politically.
But as long as superpower rivalry remains, expect clandestine political warfare – even within the “sacred” realm of American presidential campaigns — to persist. There’s simply too much at stake for all concerned.