In China, it’s called “guanxi,” translated as “connections” or “relationships.”
“There is a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture and history of building relationships. And money can come into that as well,” said James Mann, a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and author of four books on U.S.-China relations who is currently an author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University. “It can be as benign as cultivating someone who can help get your kid into college to buying them off.”
Wang Wenliang, the Chinese billionaire whose $120,000 in donations in 2013 to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s campaign and inaugural committee have been identified in news reports as a part of a federal investigation into McAuliffe, has spent much time and money on guanxi in the United States over the past six years.
Wang is the founder and head of Rilin Enterprises, a privately held company with interests in construction, ports, agriculture and electric power. It’s based in Liaoning Province, China.
He made headlines last year when news reports revealed a $2 million donation in 2013 to the Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit run by the political family with deep ties to McAuliffe. The governor is a former Democratic Party chairman, major party fundraiser and board member of the Clinton Global Initiative, part of the foundation.
In 2010, a grant from Rilin launched the Center on U.S.-China Relations at New York University. Two years later, Wang pledged $25 million to support and expand NYU’s Global Network University. He is a member of NYU’s board of trustees and is also a donor and advisory committee member at Harvard University’s Asia Center.
Representatives for NYU and Harvard did not respond to requests for additional details on Wang’s relationship with the universities.
The businessman, whose firm and its subsidiaries also control the Dandong Port Group, which manages a deepwater facility on the border with North Korea, also contributed a grant to launch the Zbigniew Brzezinski Institute on Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit Washington policy research organization with a focus on defense and security, among other issues.
And in Virginia, in a 2011 news release, Gov. Bob McDonnell boasted of a trade deal between Dandong Port Group Co. and Perdue AgriBusiness, which operates grain storage facilities in Virginia and an oilseed crush plant in Chesapeake, that shipped Perdue’s soybeans to the Dandong Pasite Grain and Oilseed Co., another Rilin affiliate.
A 2013 memorandum of understanding increased the export of soybeans to Dandong to 29 million bushels, though a Perdue spokeswoman said Tuesday that the agreement was not renewed.
“Perdue AgriBusiness is not currently shipping to and does not have any orders with Dandong Port Group or its affiliates,” the spokeswoman, Julie DeYoung, wrote in an email.
Federal lobbying disclosure forms also reveal that the Dandong Port Group hired McGuireWoods Consulting, part of the Richmond-headquartered legal and lobbying firm, in 2012 to take up “trade and business development issues” on its behalf.
On the roster of lobbyists was Frank Donatelli; a former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee and onetime assistant to President Ronald Reagan; former Democratic South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges; former Democratic Virginia Congressman L.F. Payne Jr.; and Mona Mahib, a former U.S. Labor Department and White House official and former director of communications for the Democratic Governors Association who worked on four presidential campaigns.
In a statement Tuesday night, Hodges said McGuireWoods Consulting has represented Dandong Port Co. on “a variety of business and government relations matters” for more than seven years.
“Although we no longer provide government-relations services to the company, we do continue to assist it in business-related matters when called upon,” said Hodges, a senior adviser for McGuireWoods Consulting.
“Mr. Wang, a principal in Dandong Port, is a Chinese-American business leader with interests in ports, real estate, agribusiness and other areas of business. We helped Mr. Wang’s business in 2013 to make the largest purchase of Virginia soybeans in the commonwealth’s history. Mr. Wang has continued to explore other opportunities to invest in the United States over the years and has also supported philanthropic causes here.”
McGuireWoods introduced Wang “to then-private citizen Terry McAuliffe” during the McDonnell administration, Hodges said.
“To the best of my recollection, this occurred shortly after the soybean agreement was announced,” he said.
McAuliffe said Tuesday that he was “not sure he ever met” Wang.
“I know the folks who worked on his company,” he said, insisting the donation is legal in any event because Wang has held a green card since 2007.
McAuliffe added that he and the Clintons “travel in the same circles” and that donors to the Clinton Foundation have been “friends of mine for years and years.”
He said that every check that came into his campaign was fully vetted, including the check he received from one of Wang’s companies, West Legend Corp. of Jersey City, N.J.
That’s where, in a 2011 raid, Jersey City police and inspectors found about 30 Rilin workers living in two cramped houses, according to the Jersey Journal. The New York Times, reporting last year on the purchase of expensive New York real estate by shell companies, including one created by Wang, said the inspectors found a similar situation in 2013 and that the Rilin workers were working for the Chinese Embassy.
What all the connections amount to, Mann said, is building influence, but to what purpose?
“Is this simply personal, or is there some purpose related to Chinese intelligence,” he said. “It certainly raises that question.”
He noted that Wang’s work on embassies and in ports require close ties to China’s ruling Communist Party and its security apparatus. Wang has also been a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress, the nation’s “rubber stamp” legislature, Mann said, though he considered that of lesser importance.
“In the last 10 or 15 years, as China’s businesses have developed, the party has shown greater tolerance of people rising in business who aren’t party members. But even if you’re not a party member, you have to be on good terms with the party,” he said.
Attempts to reach Wang for comment were unsuccessful.