Cracking a Chinese Code: Inside Beijing's Plan to Influence U.S. Politics

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Inside Beijing's plan to influence U.S. politics

WHEN THE STORY FIRST BROKE last January, it had everything. U.S. intelligence had intercepted secret conversations suggesting that China was running a crisp covert operation to funnel money into American politics. The reports raised the campaign fund-raising scandal to a new level of international intrigue: the possible villains now included not just Asian bankers like the Riadys, of Jakarta and Arkansas, but the Chinese government itself. The affair may still explode into a spy scandal that drives a deeper wedge between the United States and China. But far from being a team of crafty covert operators, says one top federal official familiar with the ease, the Chinese look rather like "the gang that couldn't shoot straight." NEWSWEEK has learned that the true nature of the plan seems to be a source of some confusion within Chinese ruling councils. After the stories first surfaced last winter, U.S. intelligence intercepted conversations from puzzled Chinese officials asking questions like "What about this plan? Do we have such a plan?" The picture so far, described to NEWSWEEK by knowledgeable officials, makes the Chinese intelligence apparatus look as paranoid and bumbling as, say, the CIA.

The Chinese have for many years sent spies abroad to buy or steal economic and technical secrets. But the attempt at political manipulation is new, at least in the United States. It is rooted in envy: Beijing has long wished to match the clout of the Taiwan lobby in Washington but lacked the finesse. Beijing was particularly incensed in the spring of 1995 when the president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, was given a visa to speak at his alma mater, Cornell. No cause is dearer to Beijing than the dream of one day reunifying with Taiwan, which is regarded as a renegade province. So that same spring Chinese intelligence had to come up with a plan to gain influence in Washington.

In late 1995 U.S. intercepts began to pick up signs that Beijing was stepping up its efforts to sway Congress. In January 1996 Jiang Zemin gave a dinner in Beijing for three U.S. senators. The Chinese president played piano for Dianne Feinstein, talked space exploration with John Glenn and discussed geopolitics with Sam Numa. Then, in the spring of '96, American eavesdroppers learned of a "Ten Point Plan" that apparently went far beyond schmoozing. The plan called for a propaganda campaign, including supporting Chinese-American newspapers. It also included $950,000 in what one investigator described as "seed money" to gain political influence. …