Ex-China Official a Top Donor to D.C. Think Tank

Hong Kong billionaire has close ties to Beltway and Beijing

Ronnie Chan / Getty Images
July 13, 2020

A former Chinese official has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a prominent D.C.-based think tank over the last decade, influencing its research on at least one occasion.

Hong Kong-based billionaire Ronnie Chan sits on the board of directors of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an influential think tank. He is also one of its most prolific supporters, donating between $350,000 to $575,000 to the think tank since 2010. And while the think tank insists that donors exert almost no influence on its publications, a 2013 report on U.S.-China relations credited Chan, noting that the report "has benefited from discussions with and the comments of" Chan and a litany of other donors.

Chan is an ex-government official in Hong Kong who mobilized his resources to support the election of Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive who cracked down on pro-democracy protesters at the behest of Beijing in recent years. Chan is also a governor of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a nonprofit organization widely considered to be a front group for the Chinese Communist Party to exercise influence in academia. The foundation has also cut a check to PIIE, sending between $50,000 to $75,000 to the think tank in 2012.

The billionaire is not the only person sitting on the PIIE board with ties to the Chinese regime. Min Zhu—the former deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, the country's central bank—also sits on the board. The PIIE board of directors page does not mention Chan's or Zhu's past stints in the government, even though it does so for other members.

Chan made his fortune as the chairman of the Hang Lung Group, a China-based real estate empire with multiple properties in Hong Kong and mainland China. For decades, Chan has used his influence and wealth—estimated at $2 billion—to become a regular presence inside the Beltway, appearing in a panel discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations as far back as 1997. He has served on the governing boards of several think tanks focused on East Asia, such as the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the U.S.-government funded East-West Center. The billionaire has also donated $350 million and $20 million to Harvard University and the University of Southern California, respectively.

While Chan presents himself as a private businessman and benevolent philanthropist to Western audiences, he has extensive ties to the Chinese government. He served as a senior adviser to a state-backed think tank -- the China Development Research Foundation -- that reports directly to the State Council, the highest administrative authority in China. The billionaire is also a governor at the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a registered foreign agent of the Chinese government that has pumped thousands of dollars to multiple D.C.-based think tanks, including PIIE.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan congressional committee, concluded that the China-United States Exchange Foundation is part of China's United Front Work, a shadowy network that seeks to "co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of its ruling Chinese Communist Party."

A PIIE spokesman denied that board members exercise undue influence on the think tank's research, telling the Free Beacon that no board members are "allowed to review or approve the final version of any of our research prior to publication." He also said that none of the money from Chan or the foundation was spent on Chinese research.

"The Peterson Institute for International Economics is committed to full transparency and disclosure of funding sources underwriting its studies and any author's financial relationships that might bear on his or her research," the spokesman said in a statement.

The China-United States Exchange Foundation partially sponsored a 2014 PIIE study into U.S.-China trade relations, underwriting the publication of a 450-page book on the subject. The research report painted free trade as a win-win proposition, arguing that "China and the United States would benefit substantially from a bilateral free trade and investment accord." Such a pro-free trade conclusion also happens to align with the interest of the Chinese government.

Chan did not respond to a request for comment.

Published under: CCP , China