Asia shrugs at Clinton's funds mess Where gifts are rTC common, $100,000 is small change


HONG KONG -- From Asia, the accusations of influence-peddling at the White House look a bit different.

The immediate reaction is often not outrage but surprise -- at the low U.S. prices.

Corruption and gift-giving to curry favor are widespread in most Asian countries. And a few highly publicized scandals, including cases that involved former presidents of South Korea, have highlighted what is widely accepted here. The practice is entwined with building relationships and doing business, and the amounts are usually far greater than the sums that have sparked uproar in Washington.

A $100,000 contribution will not get a visitor a night in the Asian versions of the Lincoln Bedroom, or probably even a presidential green tea. Indeed, such an amount might be regarded as so puny a donation as to be insulting.

Take Yang Chung-mo, a South Korean business executive who in the 1980s was asked to contribute to the fund-raising efforts of Chun Doo Hwan, then the country's president. According to accounts of the episode in Joong-ang Ilbo, a major Korean daily newspaper, Yang contributed $386,000, which was regarded as a paltry sum.

Chun is said to have been furious at the offering and at Yang's disregard for accepted norms (on other occasions, Yang paid by check instead of cash). After all, Chun had dropped hints to Yang that another executive had donated $3.8 million.

So Chun, who is now in prison for corruption and other crimes, was said to have punished Yang by effectively destroying his conglomerate, the Kukje Group, which was then one of South Korea's largest. At the time, Chun ruled as a virtual dictator.

Kukje went bankrupt in 1985, and its pieces were scattered among other conglomerates whose executives had dug more deeply into their pockets.

"If they want to influence policy, I don't think they would think in terms of $100,000," said a prominent Asian-American, referring to tycoons in Asia. "They would think in much larger amounts of money. A hundred thousand is too small an amount to think it could influence Clinton policy."

Politics is as costly a process in much of Asia as it is in the United States, and so politicians -- with the same distaste as in America -- feel obliged to turn to companies and wealthy individuals. Likewise, family members of influential figures in Asia, from Thailand to Taiwan and Indonesia to South Korea, sometimes see their roles as gatekeepers, and they take tips at the door.

In China, the son of a Politburo member confided a few years ago that he was accepting a $400,000 share of a company in exchange for arranging a few meetings and lending his family's support for a commercial project. The idea was that officials would favor the company if they realized that the family had a stake in it.

"You just don't do business without sending a few bucks the way of your friends," said a foreign banker in Hong Kong.

Contributions from Asians and Asian-Americans have been at the center of the controversy about White House campaign financing, but many Asian-Americans and Asians complain that the focus is misplaced. They say that the uproar is a result of bias.

One businessman in Asia who met Clinton said that at his breakfast meeting at the White House there were other foreigners, from the Middle East and elsewhere, but by far the greatest scrutiny had been directed at those with Asian names.

"I find a lot of 'yellow peril' invective in the way this is reported," said Eugene K. Galbraith, who handles global research for HG Asia, a brokerage firm, and who spent 16 years in Indonesia before moving to Hong Kong last year. Galbraith said the same kind of search for influence could be seen in other parts of the world without a strong legal tradition.

In such places, where various laws are interpreted loosely or simply do not exist, relationships have become a crucial means for doing business.

"You've got to know the people to get things done," Galbraith said.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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