Bill Clinton, China linked via his foundation

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As Chinese authorities have clamped down on unrest in Tibet and jailed dissidents in advance of the 2008 Olympics, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken a strong public stance, calling for restraint in Tibet and urging President Bush to boycott the Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing.

But her recent stern comments on China’s internal crackdown collide with former President Bill Clinton’s fundraising relationship with a Chinese Internet company accused of collaborating with the mainland government’s censorship of the Web. Last month, the firm, Alibaba Inc., carried a government-issued “most wanted” posting on its Yahoo China homepage, urging viewers to provide information on Tibetan activists suspected of stirring recent riots.

Alibaba, which took over Yahoo’s China operation in 2005 as part of a billion-dollar deal with the U.S.-based search engine, arranged for the former president to speak to a conference of Internet executives in Hangzhou in September 2005. Instead of taking his standard speaking fees, which have ranged from $100,000 to $400,000, Clinton accepted an unspecified private donation from Alibaba to his international charity, the William J. Clinton Foundation.


The former president’s charity has raised more than $500 million over the last decade and has been lauded for its roles in disaster response, AIDS prevention and Third World medical and poverty relief. But his reliance on influential foreign donors and his foundation’s refusal to release its list of donors have led to repeated questions about the sources and transparency of his fundraising -- even as Hillary Clinton has talked on the campaign trail about relying on him as a roving international ambassador if she is elected president.

Foreign contributions to American-based charities are allowed under U.S. law, but political and philanthropy ethics advocates worry that Bill Clinton’s reliance on international businesses and foreign governments to finance his worldwide charity campaigns raise issues of potential conflicts of interest if he were to take an active role in his wife’s administration.

“This is a perfect example of why it’s critical for both Clintons to provide prompt and complete disclosure of all their sources of income, not just personal sources but also his foundation,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a government reform advocacy group.

The Clinton foundation and the former president’s library in Little Rock have received millions of dollars in donations from the Saudi royal family and the Middle East sheikdoms of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, along with the governments of Taiwan and Brunei.

Fueled by such cash, the foundation has grown into a worldwide philanthropic dynamo, using its financial clout and influence with business leaders to streamline solutions for logistical logjams that have long plagued charity operations. The foundation has pressed to lower the price of expensive AIDS medications and set up long-term projects across the Third World.

But like many charities, the Clinton foundation maintains a strict policy of keeping its donations confidential to protect the privacy of donors. Still, partial lists have emerged in the foundation’s tax filings and in press accounts, leading to growing scrutiny of the activities of some contributors.


Some human rights activists suggest that the Clinton foundation’s contribution from Alibaba undermines his wife’s outspoken stance on China’s internal crackdown.

“A former president of the United States received a donation from a Chinese firm that is involved in censorship, and now his wife is running for president. This is a shame of the U.S.,” said Harry Wu, an exiled Chinese activist based in Washington.

Wu was imprisoned by Chinese authorities in 1995, then released shortly before then-First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke out during an official Beijing visit about the government’s role in abuses against women and dissidents.

A candidate’s position

In recent months, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly referred to her 1995 speech in Beijing as a foreign policy accomplishment that showed her crossing “the commander-in-chief threshold.” Clinton upbraided China’s government for infanticide and other human rights abuses in her address to the U.N.-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women.

Just last week, Hillary Clinton pressed the Bush administration to boycott the opening of the Summer Olympics. “The violent clashes in Tibet and the failure of the Chinese government to use its full leverage with Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur are opportunities for presidential leadership,” she said. “These events underscore why I believe the Bush administration has been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy toward China.”


When asked to comment on the impact of Bill Clinton’s dealings with Alibaba, Hillary Clinton’s campaign deferred to her husband’s foundation. A spokeswoman for the foundation stressed, “President Clinton is not involved with Alibaba and is opposed to censorship and the repression of political dissent.” The spokeswoman added, “Sen. Clinton’s position on human rights, both in China and elsewhere around the world, is unwavering.”

But her husband brushed aside a similar opportunity to address China’s jailing of dissidents when he spoke at the conference hosted by Alibaba in 2005. Days before his appearance, two prominent rights groups, Human Rights in China and Reporters Without Borders, asked Clinton to raise Internet freedom issues during his speech and address the plight of Shi Tao, a Chinese writer arrested in 2004 after Yahoo’s China operation provided state security authorities with private Internet data.

In his keynote address, Bill Clinton hailed the Internet as “an inherently cooperative instrument and an inherently shared technology. The Internet has the potential to put power through information and communication in the hands of ordinary people.”

But he said nothing about China’s Web censorship or Shi Tao’s arrest. Asked later why, he said he was unaware of Shi Tao’s jailing. “Unfortunately, there was no discernible result or response” from Clinton, said Carol Wang, a program officer with Human Rights in China.

The Clinton Foundation spokeswoman would not divulge the amount of Alibaba’s donation but said the firm “paid a portion of the travel expenses and contributed an amount beyond that to the foundation.” Alibaba Vice President Porter Erisman declined to comment on the donation and the firm’s dealings with the former president.

Congressional scolding


Last year, Yahoo’s senior executives were scolded by a congressional committee for the company’s dealings with Chinese authorities. In a legal settlement that followed a lawsuit by attorneys for Shi Tao and another jailed dissident, Yahoo also agreed to provide financial aid for their relatives and press for their release.

“We’ve met with the State Department and met with Chinese officials to ask for assistance in securing the release of some of these individuals,” said Michael Samway, a Yahoo vice president and the firm’s deputy general counsel. “We’re hopeful that with the Olympics approaching there will be progress.”

Human rights activists complain that Alibaba has not followed Yahoo’s lead. Jack Ma, a former official with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade who built Alibaba, has often dismissed concerns about his firm’s scrutiny of the Internet for the Chinese government. “As a business, if you cannot change the law, follow the law,” he said the morning after Clinton’s 2005 speech. “Respect the local government.”

Ma has insisted that Alibaba operates independently from the Chinese government. But Ma’s official background and China’s tight oversight of its homegrown Internet and e-commerce firms are examples of the “blurred line between government and corporation,” said Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet regulation expert who teaches at Oxford and Harvard universities and is co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“A Chinese government official doesn’t have to order a local Internet operator to censor something,” Zittrain said. “They might advise them that a certain article on their site doesn’t look too kosher. It’s communicated in code.” The result, Zittrain said, is “the great firewall of China.”

Other firms besides Yahoo and Alibaba have been criticized for cooperating with China’s Internet monitoring. Google and Microsoft’s MSN site have taken flak for decisions made by their China partners. And Chinese search engines and e-commerce firms that dominate the mainland market have routinely aided state security prosecutions, said Morton H. Sklar, Shi Tao’s American lawyer.


‘Most wanted’ posting

Human rights activists said clear evidence of Alibaba’s collaboration with China’s state security apparatus surfaced last month with the appearance of a “most wanted” posting for Tibetan rioters on the firm’s Yahoo China homepage.

The postings, which appeared March 15 on both Yahoo China and Microsoft’s MSN China homepage, carried photos of suspected rioters and a phone number for informants to call. The postings vanished later the same day after news accounts highlighted them.

Yahoo officials said they had no advance warning from Alibaba that the postings would run. “We made our concerns known that the displays were inappropriate,” one Yahoo official said, but were told by Alibaba officials “that it was a standard news feed.”

The Clinton foundation spokeswoman would not address Alibaba’s role in aiding the crackdown in Tibet. Instead, she emphasized the former president’s efforts to push AIDS relief in China. “He has both pushed and helped the government of China to acknowledge and tackle the growing HIV-AIDs crisis facing their country,” she said.

“You have to applaud President Clinton for his philanthropic interests,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. “I wouldn’t want to discourage it. But he certainly wouldn’t want to be used as a tool for special interests to have undue influence.”


Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.