WASHINGTON — Allegations that China plotted to funnel campaign dollars to members of Congress and the White House have thrown new light on a recurring theme in American politics.
Foreign governments have long sought influence among powerful figures in Washington. Some have done it legally; others have turned to the dark side.
"People are willing to go to all sorts of lengths to change public policy in this country, either from within or afar, and money is the path to that goal," says Ronald Shaiko, director of American University's Lobbying Institute in Washington.
An entire industry operates in Washington to wage policy battles, including fights by foreign governments, foreign individuals, and foreign corporations.
Some 600 lobbyists are registered with the US Justice Department as official "agents" seeking to influence the US government on behalf of foreign powers. Another 6,964 are registered with Congress (or 13 agents for each member of Congress). They represent more than 10,000 clients, both foreign and domestic, seeking to shape the legislative process.
The Greeks, the Israelis, and the Taiwanese, among others, have benefited from these agents' lobbying efforts. The Japanese successfully lobbied Congress to restrict US-imposed sanctions in the Toshiba scandal of 1987. Mexico mounted a successful lobbying campaign prior to the passage of NAFTA.
Given the legal availability of so many advocates, one of the deepest mysteries of the emerging China scandal is why Beijing didn't simply do what other governments do: hire an army of Washington insiders to do their bidding for them.
"It is hard to imagine what the Chinese were thinking," says Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group. "If the past is any judge, the pattern is to try to gain influence through several different ways at once. That means using campaign money, using lobbyists, using trips [abroad].
Similar tactics were used in a scandal 20 years ago, when South Korea tried to use cash payments to influence the White House and Congress. Seoul acted out of grave concern that the US might reduce the size of the American force stationed in South Korea.
Korean businessman Tongsun Park testified that he and the Korean intelligence service delivered at least $850,000 to 31 members of Congress, much of it in cash-stuffed envelopes. Despite investigations by the Justice Department and two committees of Congress, only one person ever went to prison - a former congressman from California who served a one-year sentence.
US-Korea relations survived the embarrassing episode. But the so-called Koreagate scandal offers two important lessons that analysts say are likely to apply to the emerging China scandal.
First, cultural differences can result in ham-handed efforts by foreign governments seeking influence in Washington. Cash gifts are an accepted form of gaining favor in many foreign countries, but in the US they are illegal bribes.
Second, the importance of money to politicians desiring reelection offers a tempting shortcut for countries seeking an advantage in high-stakes Washington policy debates.
"Money plays such a dominant role that people who want to influence policy will find ways to be helpful to candidates," says Donald Fraser, who in the late 1970s was chairman of a House subcommittee that investigated Koreagate. The former Democratic congressman from Minnesota adds, "Our political system is like a sponge. It will.absorb money from anywhere."
Fresh allegations that China may have attempted to become a disguised campaign donor have ratcheted up by several notches the fund-raising scandal in Washington. The allegations suggest that Beijing may have run a covert intelligence operation aimed at influencing US elections and policies.
But analysts say it remains unclear exactly what China expected to achieve with the $2 million it reportedly intended to route to various American candidates.
In 1996, the major parties together raised $881 million.
Among issues in Washington of concern to Beijing are US criticism of China's human-rights record and of its arms sales to rogue nations. Chinese leaders are also concerned about US relations with rival Taiwan and friction over trade issues, including whether China will continue to be treated with most-favored-nation status.
Two years ago, Chinese leaders created a body called "The Central Leading Group for the United States Congress." It reported directly to the Communist Party's Politburo. The group's task was to improve China's image in America, and the group hired American public-relations consultants to help. But according to diplomats and scholars, it didn't listen to its American advisers.
"They were so inexperienced," says one source, "that they crudely chose US targets and then just threw money at them."
The China aspect of the scandal has broadened the current Justice Department investigation of fund-raising. Agents are not just looking at the possibility that overzealous fund-raisers may have bent the rules to boost Democratic campaign coffers. Instead, they are focusing on whether Democratic National Committee vice chairman John Huang, Arkansas businessman and Clinton friend Charles Trie, and other fund-raisers and contributors may have compromised US national security by working, knowingly or unknowingly, on behalf of a foreign government seeking influence in Washington.
"It is deadly serious," says Mr. Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity.
The Chinese aspect of the scandal may anger average Americans in a way that other campaign finance revelations have not, Lewis says. "Americans may have a high threshold for corruption, but I'm not sure they have one for treason."
President Clinton's standing in national polls has dipped only slightly, despite recent embarrassing revelations about fund-raising by Vice President Al Gore and a top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The White House and the FBI have sparred over whether the bureau sought to withhold from the president and his top advisers intelligence information about suspected Chinese efforts to influence the 1996 elections.
The FBI says it warned the White House last June. But the two national security staff members who were briefed say the FBI instructed them not to pass the information on to their superiors.
It is an important issue because the information might have prompted the White House to rein in some of the DNC's more aggressive fund-raisers. Some analysts suggest that the president's own expressed desperation to raise as much campaign money as the Republicans may have led some foreign observers to interpret this an indication that the time was ripe to make under-the-table contributions.
"There is every indication that the DNC sent signals all over Asia that they needed cash and they wanted it now," says Lewis. "It is not out of the blue that this money arrived over at the DNC headquarters."
* Staff writer Rod MacLeish contributed to this report.