The Magazine

Al Gore's Stealth Trip to China

ADVANCE COPY from the December 16, 2002 issue: Between appearances on Letterman and NPR, guess where he had a photo-op.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By SAM DEALEY
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"IT'S UNFORTUNATELY TRUE," Al Gore told the Washington Post last month, "that the painful experiences in life give you more of a chance for growth than the others." In the former vice president's list of painful experiences, the 1996 Clinton-Gore fundraising scandals must rank pretty high. Although Gore was never convicted of any wrongdoing, he engaged in a host of risky schemes to raise campaign money. Among the most striking was the notorious fundraiser at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, that netted $166,750 through an illegal straw-donor scheme.

A central theme in the event, as in other Clinton-Gore fundraising outreach efforts, was the desire by Asian donors to have their photographs taken with the president and vice president. There is a good cultural explanation for this: In China and elsewhere in the Far East, pictures with powerful leaders testify to guanxi, or connections, and can be used to attest to one's high status, or secure special treatment and favors from officialdom.

What's interesting is that, painful as the fundraising scandals must have been for him (they led to his famous "no controlling legal authority" press conference), Gore didn't seize that "chance for growth." In the midst of his big publicity blitz last month--between an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" on Friday, November 15, and NPR's "Morning Edition" the following Tuesday--Gore paid a quiet visit to China to deliver the keynote address on China and the WTO at an economic forum in the bustling southern border city of Shenzhen.

"Basically, he spoke to business executives at a BusinessWeek forum," says Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera. Gore was in good company; the roster of fellow speakers reads like a Who's Who in the world of international business. It was the kind of trip about which presidential aspirants love to boast. Yet the only mentions of his appearance were brief articles in Xinhua, China's official news agency, and in the South China Morning Post.

Why the stealth? Maybe because the trip raises more questions than Gore's team wants to answer. For starters, the event was hosted not by BusinessWeek magazine but by the China Development Institute (CDI), a state-run economic think tank, and a host of other official entities, including the Communist party's Shenzhen Economic Daily.

But the real embarrassment was the money that changed hands. To help pay Gore's undisclosed speaking fee, CDI sold photo-ops with the former vice president. According to a Chinese-language website and the account in the South China Morning Post, the government think tank offered conference attendees the opportunity to have their pictures taken with Gore for 50,000 yuan ($6,000). For corporate sponsors who paid twice that, pictures with Gore were included in the package. "If that was going on, it was without our permission and without us being aware," says Cabrera, who did not accompany Gore on the trip.

The Gore camp insists the event was a BusinessWeek forum and that the vice president received no money from Chinese sources. "I can tell you specifically, our contract says dnmStrategies for BusinessWeek," says Cabrera, referring to the Hong Kong-based event organizer that counts the magazine among its clients. But this all comes as news to BusinessWeek. "This was not an official BusinessWeek-sponsored event," says Nancy Sheed, the magazine's spokeswoman in New York. "We paid nothing to dnm to do this. We did not pay any of the participants in the event. We did not pay any of the speakers at the event. BusinessWeek was also not aware that anybody had been invited on behalf of BusinessWeek to speak at the event." Multiple calls to dnmStrategies directors were not returned.

The following day, November 18, Gore traveled to Hong Kong for a private luncheon with Ronnie Chan and select members of the Asia Society's Hong Kong chapter. Chan is a Chinese-American tycoon who's made hundreds of millions in Hong Kong's dicey real estate market--a feat bespeaking cordial ties with the authorities in Beijing. What's more, Ronnie Chan served as a board member of Enron from 1996 until the company went belly-up this spring. And not just any board member. He sat on the board's audit committee, and is a named defendant in several shareholder lawsuits.

Not that there's anything wrong with a little lunch between friends, but Gore's left-populist allies won't find such chumminess very convenient to their efforts to portray the Bush administration as uniquely cozy with Texas energy companies. And Gore's office isn't pleased to be asked about it. "The fact that Chan was there is completely irrelevant," says Cabrera. "He had no contact with Gore, and [Gore] was not invited to speak at the Asia Society by Chan. It would be akin to Gore giving a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations and there being a former Enron executive in attendance."