Chinese Dollars

It's hardly the open-and-shut case that Newt Gingrich describes. But charges of illegal foreign contributions to the Democratic Party in 1996 have taken on fresh solidity.

Recent press reports, including this week's by Monitor writers Kevin Platt and Jonathan Landay confirming Chinese political donations, leave no doubt that money found its way from high places in China's military-industrial complex into Democratic hands. Follow-up investigation, by both the Justice Department and Congress, is clearly called for.

Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung was the middle man for the cash. The Chinese dollars he gave the Democrats were eventually returned when it became clear their origin was suspect. US law forbids campaign donations from foreign sources. The fact they flowed in, however, is alarming.

So far, all that's been confirmed is $100,000 Mr. Chung transferred from Liu Chaoying, a lieutenant colonel in China's Army, an official in the China Aerospace Corp., and daughter of an influential retired general. That money, though a drop in the '96 campaign finance bucket, flowed at a compromising moment - just as US China policy was being reversed to again allow Chinese missiles to launch US-made satellites.

There's no evidence President Clinton changed that policy in response to Chinese political money. Clinton aides say China policy was already evolving and aerospace collaboration was part of a carrot-and-stick strategy to bring changes in Beijing's actions, such as its export of missile technology. More influential than the Chinese, probably, were high-rolling US corporations eager to take advantage of China's inexpensive satellite-launch abilities.

Republicans charge the administration sold out US national security - by sharing sensitive satellite technology - for a mess of tainted dollars. That's far from proved. What is being proved, increasingly, is that the lust for campaign money in 1996 exposed grievous cracks in the US campaign finance system. So-called "soft money" poured into party coffers unchecked and, too often, illegally. Exposing specific wrongdoing and fixing that system must go hand in hand.

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