Gore in China Awkward visit: Fund-raising scandal could undercut U.S. relations with Beijing.

March 28, 1997

AS VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore concludes his awkward visit to China, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (of all agencies) holds the key to American-Chinese relations and, perhaps, to Mr. Gore's political future. Under a cloak of secrecy that has irritated President Clinton, the FBI is probing explosive charges that Beijing might have attempted to influence U.S. foreign policy by contributing to the money-hungry Democratic Party during the 1996 elections. It was an issue that cast its shadow on the most important diplomatic foray of the vice president's career.

Chinese Premier Li Peng, the hardliner associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, "repeated strong denials" that his government had interfered in U.S. domestic politics, the vice president told reporters. "I then said that the United States views these allegations as very serious. . . Should the allegations be proven true, then, of course, that would be a different matter, and I made clear that would be very serious indeed."

In diplomatic parlance, "very serious" is very serious. If the FBI should come up with evidence that the Beijing regime had a part in illegal or unethical fund-raising during the Clinton re-election drive, this could play hob with the administration's attempts to "strength and broaden" its bonds with a nation seen as the foremost challenger to U.S. world supremacy.

Despite continuing differences over trade, human rights, democratic freedoms and environment, Mr. Gore claimed there is "a strong consensus in the center of the American political system" supporting dialogue and engagement with China. The vice president was right on this score. But what he did not elaborate was the prospect that if the FBI finds evidence to finger the Chinese regime, relations could go into a deep chill because of fund-raising blunders in which he played a major part.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, an unhappy Mr. Clinton said he had "no way of knowing" whether the FBI is withholding information from the White House that could be important in the conduct of U.S. policy toward China. His attitude toward FBI director Louis Freeh was less than enthusiastic, but Mr. Freeh may be immune from presidential wrath at this point. If so, no politician has more at stake in the outcome of the FBI probe than the vice president.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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