TAIPEI, Taiwan — With benefit of hindsight, President Clinton has said the Democratic Party erred last May when it sent fund-raiser John Huang to Taiwan in search of contributions for the 1996 campaign.
Party leaders acknowledged that the foreign fund-raising trip created the impression that they were actively seeking illegal donations abroad, even though they insisted that Huang intended only to raise money from Taiwanese citizens who are legal U.S. residents.
Meanwhile, many Taiwanese officials saw Huang's trip as a transparent effort by the Democratic Party to exploit their island's long-standing tradition of generosity toward the United States--a tradition that previously has brought many Americans, including Clinton himself, to its shores.
The trip and the conflicting impressions of it only illustrate how tangled the financial and political relationship between Washington and Taipei has become. And officials in Taiwan are now increasingly concerned about the harsh spotlight that the current fund-raising controversy is placing on that relationship.
"We have tried to stay away from this sort of thing," said Su Chi, director of the Government Information Office.
For years, the Taiwan government and its citizens have rewarded visiting Americans with millions of dollars of business investments and charitable contributions in an effort to cement U.S.-Taiwanese relations. The government also has encouraged Taiwanese citizens to adopt a "buy American" policy, even when prices for U.S. goods have been higher than those elsewhere.
Earlier this month, Taiwan sent $10,000 to support the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, officials said. Taiwan also sent a high-level delegation of 10 members--including the son-in-law of President Lee Teng-hui--to attend the breakfast, which featured an appearance by Clinton.
Such informal visits are important to Taiwan because the U.S. government severely restricts formal diplomatic contacts with the Taipei government, fearing that they might upset relations with Beijing.
Taiwan's penchant for bestowing money and other favors on American visitors is an essential part of what P.H. Tsai, chief spokesman of the ruling Kuomintang party, describes as "a pragmatic diplomacy for survival" of Taiwan, as it tries to protect its diplomatic interests against pressures exerted by its huge neighbor, China.
Taiwan also seeks to gain favor in Washington by hosting numerous visiting delegations of American politicians. Among the many politicians who have taken advantage of these all-expenses-paid junkets in the past are Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Clinton came at least five times as governor of Arkansas; Gore came as a senator from Tennessee.
Likewise, Taiwan regularly helps to fund numerous charity functions in the United States--including the annual Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament in Sun Valley, Idaho, which attracts many members of Congress, and the annual festival of the Very Special Arts organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith.
Democratic fund-raiser Huang, who was born in China and grew up in Taiwan, was well aware of this tradition when he arrived here as part of a large delegation of Americans for Lee's inauguration last May, according to many of his acquaintances here.
In fact, while Huang's air fare was paid by the Democratic Party, many other members of the U.S. delegation--such as former Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III--traveled here at the expense of the Taiwan government, according to foreign ministry records.
Democratic Party spokeswoman Amy Weiss Tobe has said Huang did not collect any contributions for the party during this trip. Instead, she said, he sought to "prospect" for potential contributors.
Under law, foreign citizens may make such contributions if they have legal residency status in the United States; foreign corporations with U.S. subsidiaries may contribute from the revenue of their U.S. operations.
Huang was already known to some Taiwanese officials. They had met him either in the United States or on his earlier trips to Taipei as a representative of the Commerce Department, where he worked before joining the Democratic National Committee.
Vincent C. Siew, a Kuomintang legislator and former trade negotiator for Taiwan, recalls that he first met the fund-raiser when Huang was working for LippoBank in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. David Chien, a New Party representative in the national legislature, met Huang at a New Party function in New York City.
But Chien, whose party represents only a small minority in Taiwan, said he did not hit it off with Huang. "I didn't like the guy," Chien said. "I could tell he thought I was small potatoes. I could see it on his face when he shook my hand."
Because Huang's objective was to find contributors, he managed to get himself invited to a number of parties attended by Taiwan's most prominent tycoons.