WASHINGTON -- After a two-year investigation of Chinese political contributions to the 1996 election, federal authorities have unearthed evidence that Beijing's efforts were part of a broader campaign to obtain access to American high technology, according to lawyers and investigators.
While incomplete, the evidence indicates China intended to try to influence the outcome of particular races, including President Clinton's re-election.
Investigators believe that the money was intended to enhance the political standing of those who passed along the contributions to Democratic causes, to give them more clout as they argued for favorable policies on trade and technology.
"Technology was a primary motive," said a senior Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It appears, the official said, that China intended to follow the example of American corporations, which use campaign donations to raise the profile of their lobbyists in Washington. Under U.S. law, such contributions are prohibited.
Investigators and officials said their new view of China's motivations was based on inference and evidence that includes bank records, intercepted telephone calls and statements by witnesses.
While they were sparing in details, the officials said they have learned of links between the fund-raisers who arranged the suspect donations and Chinese executives and officials involved acquiring Western technology with military uses. They said the inquiry has documented more active and substantial contacts between fund-raisers like Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Chinese officials than was previously known.
Another fund-raiser in the case, Johnny Chung, was sentenced yesterday to five years' probation by a federal judge in Los Angeles.
The campaign finance investigation began in 1996, when U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdropped on conversations in which Chinese officials discussed a plan to play a role in the elections.
Eventually, investigators focused on the activities of three principal figures: John Huang, a former Commerce Department official who became a leading fund-raiser for the Democratic Party; Trie, a close friend of Clinton's from Arkansas: and Chung, a California entrepreneur.
The Democratic Party, Clinton's legal defense fund and Democratic candidates returned several million dollars in contributions connected to the three men. There is no indication that the campaigns or the White House knew that Chinese businesses or government officials were behind any of the donations.
A Senate investigation of the contributions earlier this year raised questions about the role of the Chinese government, but lacked the banking records and intelligence information which has subsequently been made available to the FBI.
One of most intriguing new pieces of evidence involves Trie, who served on a presidential commission on Asian trade policy.
Trie is said to have met in Beijing with Chinese contacts and
asked for $1 million that could be used for political activities in the United States. Investigators said Trie told associates he had Chinese backing. He eventually raised or contributed more than $1 million for Democratic Party causes.
The campaign inquiry is examining whether any of this money originated with Chinese companies or officials. Records show that Trie received almost $1 million from a Macao businessman with ties to the Chinese government.
Trie's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, said he knows nothing of Trie's activities in China.
Investigators say they have learned more about another important figure in the case, Lt. Col. Liu Chao-ying, a Chinese military officer and aerospace executive. Chung has told investigators he took money from Liu knowing that it came from the Chinese military.
In recent weeks, Chung has told investigators that he tried to arrange meetings for Liu with American aerospace companies when she visited the United States in 1996.
Liu did not return a phone call to her office in Hong Kong.
China's efforts in the 1996 elections came at a time when the Clinton administration was relaxing controls over technology exports and military exchanges with China, a policy that dovetailed precisely with Beijing's interests. Still, no evidence has surfaced that Clinton administration officials knew about the covert Chinese activities.
Pub Date: 12/15/98