The Chinese government invited then-astronaut Mark Kelly, now an Arizona Democratic Senate candidate, to an all-expenses-paid retreat at a countryside resort in 2003. He left China five days later not only with a future spouse, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D., Ariz.), but also with lucrative regime business contacts.
Kelly attended the annual Young Leaders Forum, a five-day junket cohosted by the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, which is "under the leadership of the Communist Party of China." The conference allowed Kelly an opportunity to mingle with high-profile Communist Party officials and rising stars in Chinese society. Attendees included Cui Tiankai, now Chinese ambassador to the United States; Fang Xinghai, former director of the CCP's top committee on the economy; and Zhou Mingwei, the party's former top foreign propaganda honcho.
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China analyst Gordon G. Chang said that party connections—such as those Kelly fostered—are "absolutely essential" for securing Chinese business deals.
"The Communist Party tries to control everything, whether it's a state enterprise or a private company," he said. "And so it's extremely important to have Communist Party contacts [to do business]."
Kelly has also had extensive ties with China since becoming a civilian. World View Enterprise, an aerospace company he cofounded and in which he still holds investments, received funding from Chinese tech giant Tencent, which censors the internet for Beijing. As the Washington Free Beacon reported, he also held a financial stake in a Colorado company that courted investments from a Chinese state-funded tech enterprise.
He now has assets worth up to $27 million, according to his financial disclosure.
A Kelly campaign spokesman said that the former aviator's participation was "coordinated by NASA," but did not answer questions about whether the Democrat used any of the contacts he met on the YLF trip for his business ventures. Instead, the campaign said that prominent Republicans also participated in the campaign.
Kelly and Giffords told multiple media outlets that they met during the Young Leaders Forum, without mentioning the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs. The retreat took place in a luxury hotel in the scenic Chinese countryside, where attendees went on pleasure cruise rides in between their panel discussions. Kelly gave a one-hour speech about his space experience, while Giffords participated in a panel discussion with Chinese politicos.
Kelly would participate in the 2004 and 2005 conferences as well. He called the experience "one of the absolute highlights of my life, second only to flying in space," and even took a Forum banner into space in 2006.
Kelly's campaign has been trying to deflect concerns about the candidate's business ties by emphasizing his military service and calling China a "threat to American interests." Nevertheless, they have remained contentious in the race, with Republicans spending millions on ads accusing him of dependence on China. He holds a 5.5 point lead against Republican incumbent Martha McSally, according to RealClearPolitics.