YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Claim of Campaign Offer Clouds Taiwan Diplomacy

Politics: Allegations of pitch to give $15 million to help Clinton raise questions on lobbying. If true, some on island see political costs in such overtures.


TAIPEI, Taiwan — Ever since Washington cut official ties with Taiwan in 1979, the tiny territory has been trying to capture the attention of American politicians. But not this kind of attention.

Allegations that the ruling party's top money man secretly offered $15 million to support President Clinton's reelection campaign have thrust Taiwan's aggressive lobbying efforts into an unwelcome international spotlight.

And at home, while most Taiwanese laud the recognition that years of cultivating ties have brought, the allegations--whether true or not--have sparked bitter debate about the political costs of private diplomacy.

"I worry that in the future some senator or congressman who supports Taiwan may be less inclined to speak out because they may be suspected of being on the take," said Parris Chang, a legislator from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. "They support Taiwan because Taiwan is worthy of support, not because of bribery."

Publicly, government officials dismiss reports that a $15-million pledge was made during an Aug. 1, 1995, meeting between Liu Tai-ying, the head of the business arm of the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and Mark E. Middleton, a former White House aide.

"The government is not stupid enough to do this kind of thing," government spokesman Su Chi said.

Under law, U.S. political candidates are prohibited from accepting donations from foreign governments and foreign citizens, except those who reside legally in the United States.

Liu filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the magazine that reported the allegation, the Chinese-language Yazhou Zhoukan. A Kuomintang spokesman accused the magazine's journalists and sources of being "Chinese Communist Party agents" out to undermine Taiwan.

But privately, even Kuomintang members blanch at such outdated rhetoric and the stories of unmonitored deal-making that echo Taiwan's authoritarian past.


"We're a democracy now," said Lin Yu-fang, a special advisor to the independent New Party, who served as translator during a perfunctory meeting, also on Aug. 1, 1995, between Middleton and New Party presidential candidate Lin Yang-kang. "I thought we had outgrown that."

There is no evidence that any money changed hands or was even discussed during the Liu meeting.

Chen Chao-ping, the political consultant who arranged the meeting and later made the allegations, offered to debate Liu face to face in the Taiwan legislature. But Liu said he would rather do it in court, and now neither party will talk to the media under instructions from lawyers.

A second witness to the meeting, Harvard-educated lawyer Fred Li Ke-ming, said he did not hear any talk about money but that he missed much of the conversation because of calls on his cellular phone.

But political associates of Liu say it would not be out of character for him to make such an offer.

The blustery party financier--who is as well known for his secret diplomacy as for his propensity to brag about it--has been described variously as "a troublemaker" and "the only one [President] Lee Teng-hui can completely depend on to get the job done."

During an investigation of suspected financial improprieties last year, Liu threatened to commit hara-kiri if found guilty.

Liu has taken credit for getting Lee a visa to visit Cornell University last year, sources say, and even for helping persuade the United States to send aircraft carriers to the region when China started lobbing missiles in Taiwan's direction before the island's presidential election in March.

"Liu Tai-ying is like a bull in the china shop of diplomacy," opposition member Chang said. "He shouldn't be handling foreign affairs."

To the dismay of Taiwan's more conservative diplomats, Liu favored private channels to traditional relationship-building.

Through a nongovernmental research institute, Liu retained Washington public relations firm Cassidy & Associates for $125,000 a month to push Taiwan's agenda in Congress.

The tactic proved successful; it helped win approval for Lee's U.S. visit. But the intense lobbying also created difficulties for Clinton, who was trying to balance U.S. interests toward its official diplomatic partner, China, and newly democratic Taiwan.


Opposition party members and old-line diplomats alike are calling for more transparency in international dealings, and a law to forbid "citizens' diplomacy" is under discussion.

But government spokesman Su said that until it receives recognition, he doubts that Taiwan can significantly change the way it pushes its interests in Washington.

"As long as we don't have a proper channel to the [Clinton] administration, we can't meet in the White House [and] we have to meet in restaurants to try to catch their ear," he said. "We have no other choice."

Los Angeles Times Articles