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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

What Are the Ties That Bind Fong to China?

A GOP congressman fears Fong donor Sioeng is 'a vehicle for the Chinese government to funnel money to U.S.'

October 27, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

Is Matt Fong a pawn of the Chinese Communists, a puppet of religious right leader Lou Sheldon or just his own man? Perhaps the last, but those are, as Republican congressional investigators like to say, troubling questions.

Let's begin with the Red China connection. As readers may recall, the Republicans in Congress, led by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, have been making hay over the possibility of Chinese Communist money having flowed the way of Democrats. The charge centered on the activities of Ted Sioeng, who is described by Burton as "an Indonesian-born businessman who travels on a Belize passport [who is] suspected by committee members of working, along with his family, on behalf of the Chinese government interests in the United States." Sounds pretty bad, particularly when you throw in the charge that Sioeng's business interests include the export of Red Pagoda cigarettes and that Burton feared the company could be "used as a vehicle for the Chinese government to funnel money into the United States." Already, half my readers have rushed off to write treatments for a Red Pagoda movie.

Anyway, the problem with the GOP-led investigation of Sioeng's activities is that it turned out that Republicans rather than Democrats had the closest ties with the Red Pagoda exporter. In fact, the only personal contribution Sioeng made--for $50,000--was to California State Treasurer Matthew K. Fong, the GOP U.S. Senate candidate running against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. In addition, a Sioeng family-controlled company, Panda Estates Investment, made a $50,000 contribution to Fong.

Fong also facilitated a meeting between Sioeng and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). A week after that meeting, Panda Industries made a $50,000 contribution to a subsidiary of the Republican National Committee. But maybe this was more a matter of business than politics, since Fong's wife Paula, a GOP fund-raiser, earned a $10,000 commission on the donation. There is no evidence that any of the money that went from the Sioeng family to Fong had anything to do with the Chinese Communists, and Fong is probably right in claiming that the charge about a China connection is "racist." But then again, it was Republicans who played this China card in the first place.

The connection between Fong and the right-wing Sheldon is clearer and more troubling. Last May, while in the throes of a heated primary battle, Fong donated $50,000 to Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, which specializes in opposition to abortions and gay rights and is in favor of inserting creationist theory into public school curricula. That would seem an odd gift for Fong, who was described in Sunday's Times editorial endorsing him as "a low-key Republican moderate."

Fong, who is in favor of legal abortions during the first trimester but not thereafter, is not quite in the camp of Sheldon, who has likened abortion at any time to murder. For that reason, it was surprising that Sheldon defended Fong when he was under attack by an opponent in the primary, Darrell Issa, whose positions are closer to Sheldon's. That Fong had made the substantial contribution to Sheldon was not publicly known at the time. Fong spokesman Steve Schmidt defended the donation: "Rev. Lou's group is about voter participation and involvement, and Matt Fong supports people being involved in the process." Which seems a bit disingenuous, given Sheldon's extreme right-wing agenda, including at one point calling for the quarantine of people with AIDS. Sheldon last week said he considered the donation "pro-family" and said it would be used for an initiative to ban gay marriages.

Well, politics does make strange bedfellows, but it is important to make it clear that there is no evidence that any of the Chinese Communist money made its way through Fong and into the Traditional Values Coalition. Now that would be a hot story if true, but it isn't. The religious right doesn't like Communist China at all. Indeed, the Republicans in Congress, under pressure from the religious right, have held up funding for the U.N. on the grounds that it isn't sufficiently critical of family planning efforts in China and other countries.

So, let's wrap this all up. Fong is not a dupe of the Chinese Communists and he did not use Red yuans to support Sheldon, but he did finance Sheldon's hate campaign in a way that mocks Fong's claim that he is a moderate.

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