Chinese Funny Money Deserves a Close Look

Johnny Chung, the shady businessman who insinuated himself into the White House 49 times, seems to have believed that he could buy clout with donations to the Democratic Party-and on the cheap, too. The Clinton aides whose warnings about this “hustler” were stupidly or venally ignored proved more accurate than they could have known. According to accounts he reportedly has provided to Justice Department investigators, Mr. Chung scammed a Chinese Army colonel named Liu Chao-ying out of $300,000 for contributions to American politicians. He then donated about $100,000 to the Democrats, and kept the change.

Assuming that he is now telling the truth, the most appropriate punishment for Mr. Chung might be to consign him to the not-so-tender mercies of Chinese justice. For swindling Ms. Liu, the daughter of an important general and Communist Party leader, he could expect a very swift trial and an even swifter bullet in the head (with his internal organs possibly preserved for profitable marketing abroad). Luckily for him, Mr. Chung is an American citizen and therefore subject to our judicial process, where a deal is almost always possible: He pleads guilty, he chats with prosecutors, and he lives to hustle cigarettes in a Federal facility.

Yet aside from proving once again the vulnerability of American politics to the malign influence of “soft” money, both foreign and domestic, what is the significance of Mr. Chung’s testimony? It has long been obvious that his donations should have been rejected by the Democrats, who returned the $366,000 that is probably helping to pay his lawyer. Unless further evidence emerges that someone in Washington knew he was acting as an agent of Beijing, however, there won’t be much basis for prosecuting anybody other than Mr. Chung and maybe Ms. Liu.

Even if Mr. Chung thought his contributions could buy the policies his client desired, his decision to keep most of her money for himself suggests a more banal scenario. He spent enough to put on a show of power for the rubelike Ms. Liu so she would keep writing checks.

Still, the coincidence of donations from Mr. Chung (and others allegedly connected to China) with favorable trade decisions requires a fast, tough and thorough investigation. If anything, Mr. Chung’s recent revelations would seem to vindicate the decision of Attorney General Janet Reno to assign this task to the Justice Department rather than an independent counsel, who would have taken months longer to achieve the same result.

Meanwhile, Federal prosecutors are also scrutinizing two American firms which gave to the Democrats while seeking to launch satellites on Chinese rockets. One is Hughes Aircraft Company, a subsidiary of General Motors, which historically gives heavily to both political parties; the other is Loral Space & Communications Ltd., headed by a generously partisan Democrat named Bernard Schwartz.

Mr. Schwartz is an unusual figure in the aerospace industry, a Brooklyn-born Jewish liberal in a business dominated by middle-American engineers of conservative Republican orientation. As The Washington Post reported early last year-before all its heavy breathing about Chinese espionage-Mr. Schwartz’s competitors are bemused by his politics but consider “totally implausible” the notion that he lobbied the White House for favors. Among Mr. Schwartz’s particular friends is Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Democrat of Connecticut whose nonpartisan performance last year during the Senate’s campaign finance investigation won praise from Mr. Clinton’s harshest critics.

Unlike Mr. Schwartz, however, Hughes Aircraft chief executive C. Michael Armstrong did lobby quite openly, sending an angry letter to the President in 1993 demanding that sanctions on China be lifted, or else. He was hardly alone in his desire to penetrate Chinese markets, with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Liz Smith drooling over the Beijing bonanza. Mr. Clinton caved in before long, just as his Republican predecessors did.

Unlikely though it is that the President knew about Chinese money dribbling into his party’s accounts, those financial tokens were surely meant to reward his turn toward “constructive engagement.” Unfortunately, most of the Congressional inquisitors have as little interest in China as they do in campaign finance reform. They are seeking to embarrass Mr. Clinton, not to debate his foreign policy.

That is typical of Newt Gingrich’s Congress, but too bad nonetheless. The President’s overtures to China deserve to be disputed on the merits. There is much to question about the wisdom of building up a regime that imprisons dissidents, outlaws independent unions, denies basic freedoms, threatens its neighbors and cherishes dreams of imperial power.

Of course, those now braying about “treason” are mostly the same people who formerly urged Mr. Clinton to abandon his human rights platform and take a softer line on China. And as usual, the most feverish accusations are made by the least credible accusers. Consider the New York Post , whose owner, Rupert Murdoch, has prostrated himself before the Chinese dictators for commercial advantage. Lately, the Post has discovered that the rulers of the Middle Kingdom are “brutal” and “totalitarian.” Do tell.

Chinese Funny Money Deserves a Close Look