Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rubbed elbows with senior Chinese government officials and wealthy business executives during an exclusive Liberal Party fundraiser in May, potentially violating his own ethics rules.
Benson Wong, chairman of the Chinese Business Chamber of Commerce, hosted the $1,500-per-head soirée at his mansion in Toronto, where the 32 attendees included an insurance tycoon who was in the process of obtaining final approval from Canadian regulators to open a new bank targeted at Chinese-Canadian depositors.
Two months after the fundraiser, Shenglin Xian, who founded Wealth One Bank of Canada, received the go-ahead from Ottawa to begin operating his federally chartered bank. Canadian publication Globe and Mail first reported the story last week.
Members of Parliament accused Trudeau last week of breaching a mandate put forth by his government last year that declares "there should be no preferential access, or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations. The prime minister may have also violated Liberal Party conflict of interest guidelines that require party officials to prohibit individuals who have direct business with the government from attending fundraisers.
New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus told the Globe last Tuesday that Trudeau "set a low bar" by attending the fundraiser, which also hosted at least four representatives of President Xi Jinping's ruling Communist Party.
"I find this particular case very troubling because this is a person who has a direct financial interest, paid money, [and] had access to the prime minister," Angus said. "Whether business was discussed is beside the point."
Faced with a barrage of criticism during Tuesday’s Question Period in the House of Commons, Trudeau defended his presence at the event as a measure to attract investment dollars from China to Canada.
"Canadians faced a period of 10 years of lower-than-needed growth under the previous government. That is why we have committed, engaging positively with the world to draw in investment," he told the Commons.
Also among the attendees on May 19 was Chinese businessman Zhang Bin, a political adviser to the Chinese government in Beijing. Just weeks after the fundraiser, Zhang and a partner donated $1 million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal Faculty "to honor the memory and leadership" of the prime minister's father, Pierre Trudeau.
A fifth of the donation was allocated to the Trudeau Foundation, with $50,000 paying for a statue of the elder Trudeau, who established diplomatic relations with China while serving as prime minister in 1970.
Though there is no evidence Zhang paid to attend the fundraiser, the timing of his donation raised concerns among MPs given his role as president of the China Cultural Industry Association, which is regulated by Beijing and tasked with building Chinese influence around the globe.
The incident is reminiscent of China's attempt in the 1990s to direct foreign donations to the Democratic National Committee in an effort to influence U.S. policy under the Bill Clinton administration. The former president was ultimately forced to return $640,000 donated to his legal defense fund by Democratic fundraiser Yah Lin Trie, who later pled guilty to violating campaign finance rules.