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Connections Are Key In Asian Business Culture

By Tom Mintier/CNN


BANGKOK (AllPolitics, Feb. 24) -- Some of the intrigue in the U.S. campaign finance saga may come from a clash of cultures and different views about crossing the line concerning political cash and the law.

On a recent trip to Bangkok, President Bill Clinton could be very accessible. At one appearance, university students only had to pay tuition to have a chance to shake his hand.

But across town, a group of businessmen may have paid a lot more for their access, when they met with the president at the tax treaty-signing ceremony between the United States and Thailand.


Being invited by the White House to the event was important. Having a seat on the front row and a chance to shake hands with the U.S. president is worth a lot.

Just how much is difficult to say, but Asian businessmen place a high value on pictures with a U.S. president. To some, it is better than hunting big game, more important than winning a golf tournament. To some, it means success.

Mark Israelsen, president of the American Chamber of Commerce-Thailand says, "That's...the Asian way."

Israelsen has been doing business in Thailand for more than a decade. He says giving money in exchange for access is considered just the way to do business by Asians in Asia.


"I think it's a common practice in terms of getting influence or recognition in the Asian market," Israelsen says.

So coffee at the White House would be seen as an important accomplishment for the chief executive officer of an Asian company?

"Absolutely!" he says.

One man at the tax ceremony, Dhanin Chearavonont, was invited to have coffee at the White House on June 18, 1996. He is the chairman of The CP Group, the largest corporation in Thailand. It has major holdings around the world, with a huge investment in China.

Most corporations dream of doing just 1 percent of the consumer market there. CP apparently has set its sights higher. They are currently the largest single investor in China. From the feed mills that supply the grain to the farms that feed it to the chickens to the end product, CP has a major stake in the market.


The U.S. policy toward China was discussed during the coffee meeting with President Clinton at the White House, but CP officials say the get-together included other topics, too.

Said Pornsri Luphaiboon, a spokeswoman for CP: "They discussed and exchanged views about the relations between the American and Asian region."

Asked if a contribution was made to Clinton's re-election campaign by The CP Group to set up that meeting, she said no.


"I'm afraid that's not true," she said. "I was informed that there was no money or contribution involved."

But money was involved. On the same day as the White House coffee, the woman who set up the meeting for CP, along with an associate, donated $135,000 to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to help Clinton.

"Asians typically wouldn't approach things going directly from me to you," said Israelsen. "It's through a series of contacts or also through business organizations."

The relationship between CP and U.S. presidents is not a new one. George Bush traveled to Thailand on a CP-financed trip to help celebrate the company's 72nd anniversary.

But now the relationship is moving to the next generation: The former president's son, Neil Bush, has two joint ventures with CP in China.


The younger Bush is bouncing back from the 1992 Silverado scandal, when he served on the board of a Colorado savings and loan association that cost U.S. taxpayers millions when it crashed.

Recently, GOP California Gov. Pete Wilson came to Bangkok and had lunch with the Thai-U.S Business Council. The group was formed three years ago to promote business ties on both sides of the Pacific.

Thailand's now-retired ambassador to the United States, Manaspas Xuto, helped set up the group. He said the group's goal is to promote business relationships.

He said the group does not have a political action committee. Asked whether the business council ever makes contributions to the American political campaigns, he said, "Not at all."

neil bush

Have any of the members of the group made contributions to the election campaigns? "I don't know..I don't think so... no," he said. "Their task is to promote the relationship on the private sector on both sides."

But in the last presidential campaign things may have been different. Pauline Kanchanalak is a lobbyist from Thailand for the council. She once worked at the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington.

She has been to the White House often, more than two dozen times during Clinton's first term. In all, she donated more than $250,000 to the DNC in 1996. The money was returned when DNC officials could not determine exactly where the donations came from.


CNN did catch up with her husband, Chupong Kanchanalak, who is also a member of the business council.

He said, "I don't know anything about what happens over there," he said. "Ask Pauline... ask Pauline."

Pauline isn't talking. She has turned down several requests for interviews by CNN.

One Taiwanese woman who didn't donate her own money but encouraged others was Suma Ching Hai. She is a spiritual leader of a Buddhist sect with a reported 100,000 followers in the United States. She asked her followers to donate to the president's legal defense fund, after a meeting with Charlie Trie, the Taiwanese-born restaurant owner from Little Rock, Ark. Trie delivered $639,000 to the legal defense fund, most if not all from Ching Hai followers. The fund's trustees returned the money.

"I can help the homeless on the street with $5,000 [or] $100,000," Ching Hai said. "Why couldn't I help a president of the United States when he's in trouble? He's more poor than the homeless."

ching hai

The donations from both the Taiwanese religious group and the Thai businessmen have all been sent back. But questions still remain about what both groups hoped to get in return.

Up until this past year, Asians were not very involved in U.S. political campaigns. The newcomers have added fuel to the fire by importing the Asian tradition of trading gifts of money for lucrative political access. It's not illegal in Asia, but can violate U.S. law. It's that cultural difference which is at the center of this controversy.

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