As Election Day nears, President Donald Trump and his supporters are urging greater scrutiny of Hunter Biden, the son of his opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden. They’re especially focusing on the younger Biden’s ties to China.
“Joe Biden must immediately release all emails, meetings, phone calls, transcripts, and records related to his involvement in his family’s business dealings and influence peddling around the world—including in CHINA!” Trump tweeted on Oct. 14. His campaign also ran an ad that said, “The question is not why Hunter Biden used his name to get these gigs. It’s why Joe Biden let him do it.”
This line of attack against Biden is crystallized in a new documentary distributed by TheBlaze, a conservative media site, and featuring the conservative author Peter Schweizer.
The film relies on Schweizer’s 2019 book, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. Previously, Schweizer wrote the book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, which received some poor ratings for accuracy from PolitiFact.
We have previously reviewed some of the allegations leveled at Hunter Biden by Trump allies. However, because of the renewed focus on Hunter Biden’s dealings in China in the closing days of the campaign, we’ll look at some of the issues again here.
Late in the documentary, Schweizer offers a narration that summarizes some of the key arguments made by Trump’s allies.
"What we do know is that the Bidens have cultivated very close relationships with members of the Chinese elite, and some of those relationships would be very hard to defend. … We know the Biden family has a series of lucrative deals with the Chinese government. We know that these deals came despite a lack of experience by the Bidens in the areas they cover. We know that they happened while Joe Biden was steering policy towards China.
"We also know that these deals didn’t just make the Bidens money — they had dangerous consequences for our national security. We know that Hunter Biden’s firm, backed by the Chinese government, invested in a company that was actively stealing nuclear secrets from the United States. We know that China has been consistent in its efforts to acquire U.S. technology, and that their spies have been caught trying to steal our nuclear technology.
“We know that Hunter Biden’s firm bought a company that provides dual-use technologies for the Chinese military. We know that global powers have tried to stop China from monopolizing the world’s mineral resources. And we know that Hunter Biden’s firm bought a company that actually helped China in its competition with the United States for mineral resources.”
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Many of the granular specifics that Schweizer cites have been documented, but foreign policy experts say the overarching conclusions reached in the documentary miss the mark because they do not add up to a picture of Joe Biden being corrupt or pursuing policies contrary to the national interest.
The documentary leaves the impression that former Vice President Joe Biden is willing to sell out his country’s national security for personal gain. But independent experts agree that this assertion is baseless. The documentary never says that either Biden broke the law, but its pairing of the Bidens with Chinese figures charged with espionage and other crimes, punctuated by spooky music, might give a viewer that impression. However, there is no evidence that Hunter Biden came close to breaking the law, much less any evidence that his father has done so.
Meanwhile, critics say that the Trump family’s financial entanglements are at least as problematic, if not worse.
“There needs to be financial disclosures of adult children of politicians, as well as politicians themselves,” said Yoshiko Herrera, a University of Wisconsin professor who previously headed the university’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia. “Let’s start with President Trump’s tax returns, then all the candidates' adult childrens' tax returns, and then we can dig deeper on other extraneous rumors about China.”
Here’s a look at some of the claims from the documentary, which we’ve divided into micro-level and macro-level allegations. The Trump or Biden campaigns did not respond to an inquiry for this article, though Schweizer did. Also, for clarity’s sake, the China allegations against Hunter Biden are separate from those involving alleged ties to Ukraine that were published on Oct. 14 by the New York Post, and that have drawn skepticism.
The micro-level allegations
“We know the Biden family has a series of lucrative deals with the Chinese government.”
How “lucrative” these deals were for Hunter Biden is subject to divergent estimates, but the deals did exist, through Bohai Harvest RST, a company that Hunter Biden was involved in to pursue investment opportunities.
In September 2014, a deal was announced for Bohai Harvest RST to invest 6 billion Chinese yuan, or about $1 billion at the prevailing exchange rate, in Sinopec Marketing Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of a state-controlled oil and gas company. The investment, finalized in March 2015, was one of several simultaneous investments by various entities that added up to nearly a 30 percent stake in the firm.
In September 2015, Bohai Harvest RST paid $600 million to buy 49 percent of auto supplier Henniges Automotive Inc.; the Chinese state-owned AVIC Automotive Systems Holding Co., reportedly acquired 51 percent.
And in April 2017, Bohai Harvest RST paid $1.2 billion for 24 percent of Democratic Republic of Congo-based Tenke Fungurume Mining. Much of the rest of the company is owned by China Molybdenum Co., a private holding company with “state-owned capital participation.”
So where did the capital to make these investments come from? In 2019, the Wall Street Journal, citing business registrations, reported that Bohai Harvest RST was 80 percent controlled by Chinese entities.
George Mesires, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, told PolitiFact in 2019 that the younger Biden was an unpaid board member until October 2017, at which point he did take a 10 percent financial stake in Bohai Harvest RST.
Mesires later released a statement on Oct. 13, 2019, saying that Hunter Biden would be resigning from the board, without receiving any return on his investment or shareholder distributions. That decision was made around the time that Trump allies were targeting his activities publicly.
“We know that these deals came despite a lack of experience by the Bidens in the areas they cover.”
Hunter Biden had work experience in the financial services sector and had been a Yale Law School-educated attorney, but he does not appear to have had any significant training in Asia, oil and gas, mining, or aviation.
“We know that (these deals) happened while Joe Biden was steering policy towards China. We also know that these deals didn’t just make the Bidens money — they had dangerous consequences for our national security.”
Robert Ross, a Boston College political scientist who specializes in China, said that what was known as the Obama administration pivot toward Asia began in 2010. This predated the creation of Bohai Harvest RST.
“This policy shift aimed to resist Chinese security policy initiatives,” Ross said. "Overall security and economic trends reflected a significant hardening of U.S. policy toward China, as compared to both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. For instance, U.S. policy developed greater security cooperation with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines to strengthen the alliances and to better contend with Chinese policy.
But Ross said that he knows of “no U.S. agreements with China that entailed U.S. security interests, much less that compromised U.S. security.”
“We know that Hunter Biden’s firm, backed by the Chinese government, invested in a company that was actively stealing nuclear secrets from the United States. We know that China has been consistent in its efforts to acquire U.S. technology, and that their spies have been caught trying to steal our nuclear technology.”
Reuters has reported that Bohai Harvest RST also invested in China General Nuclear Power Corp, a state-owned company. The company employed a naturalized U.S. citizen and nuclear engineer, Allen Ho, who was indicted in the United States in 2016 for allegedly enlisting U.S.-based nuclear experts to assist in developing and producing special nuclear material in China. “Prosecuting those who unlawfully facilitate the acquisition of sensitive nuclear technology by foreign nations continues to be a top priority of the National Security Division,” the Justice Department said its news release about Ho’s sentencing to 24 months in prison.
“We know that Hunter Biden’s firm bought a company that provides dual-use technologies for the Chinese military.”
“We know that global powers have tried to stop China from monopolizing the world’s mineral resources. And we know that Hunter Biden’s firm bought a company that actually helped China in its competition with the United States for mineral resources.”
The mining deal involved the takeover of a mine that produces significant amounts of cobalt, which technically isn’t a rare-earth element but which is considered a critical mineral by the U.S. government, along with niobium, another commodity produced by the Chinese mining company.
The film acknowledges that the Obama administration was fighting China over rare-earth minerals at the time, which is the opposite of Biden steering U.S. policy towards his son’s benefit.
Problems with the macro-level allegations
Even if the granular details are correct, however, that doesn’t mean there is a widespread scandal. Here are a few reasons why:
The verifiable aspects of the story are about Hunter Biden, not Joe Biden.
In many of these allegations, Schweizer uses the term “the Bidens.” While the viewer is presumably meant to fill in the blank as “Joe Biden,” the allegations really refer to members of his family, particularly Hunter.
In our previous analyses, we’ve made it clear that Hunter Biden did cause a problem of appearances for his father.
“It is apparent to me that Hunter Biden did not do anything illegal in China, but it would have been much better for Joe Biden’s political fortunes if Hunter Biden had not been involved in either Ukraine or China,” Lincoln A. Mitchell, an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, told us last year.
Barry Naughton, chair of Chinese international affairs at the University of California-San Diego, told us earlier this year that while it’s allowed, “it is certainly a bad thing that our political system allows deals like this, and a bad thing that Hunter Biden takes advantage of them.”
In a lengthy investigation of dealings by Hunter Biden and James Biden, the nominee’s brother, Politico concluded that “Biden’s image as a straight-shooting man of the people ... is clouded by the careers of his son and brother, who have lengthy track records of making, or seeking, deals that cash in on his name.”
Regardless, there is no evidence that Joe Biden was orchestrating these activities, or benefiting from them.
Schweizer told PolitiFact that he does not “allege anyone broke a law. But I don’t know that the threshold for acceptable behavior for our elected leaders needs to be not committing criminal acts.”
There’s no evidence that Hunter Biden’s activities drove changes in policy.
Just because the deals happened at the same time doesn’t mean that Joe Biden acted corruptly in carrying out policy.
Much the same fallacy can be seen in the accusations that Biden acted to oust Ukraine’s top prosecutor in order to benefit a company where Hunter Biden was serving as a board member. In reality, much of the international community was united in the push to remove the prosecutor due to concerns over corruption.
The rare-earth minerals deal, for instance, ran counter to the administration’s policy, which suggests White House policy was running against Hunter Biden’s business interests.
Schweizer said his research shows that Chinese officials sought out Hunter Biden and his partner Devon Archer “to pursue an agenda of ‘soft diplomacy,’” and that Joe Biden “made numerous public statements in which he portrays China as a harmless rival. … That a sitting vice president is presenting our main rival in this light is not insignificant.”
However, a point that the documentary doesn’t note is that Biden’s policy now, as a candidate, has been tough on China. He has been framing “China’s rise as a serious challenge,” according to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“He has criticized its ‘abusive’ trade practices — warning that it may pull ahead of the United States in new technologies — and its human rights record,” the analysis says. “He says he would mount a more effective pushback against China than Trump and work more closely with allies to pressure Beijing.”
For better or worse, these sorts of ties are common, and legal, among world leaders.
A wide range of China experts told PolitiFact that it’s not unusual for Chinese government and businesses interests to court prominent Americans or their family members.
“This is a standard operating procedure,” Naughton said. “Bring in an influential person, give him a small percentage of a firm as a ‘finders fee,’ and grow the business.”
It is a widespread belief of Chinese leaders “that a father always secretly helps his son,” said Zhiguo He, a finance professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “Chinese business entities would like to give favors to the son in a proactive way, with the belief that if I am giving deals to the son, the father will remember it. Many lower level officials are doing it.”
Neil Bush, the younger brother of then-President George W. Bush, testified in a March 2003 divorce proceeding about a $2 million stock deal with Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., a firm backed by the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
HNA Group, a Chinese conglomerate, offered to buy a hedge fund owned by former White House official Anthony Scaramucci; retained the legal services of Gary Locke, the former U.S. ambassador to China, shortly before his confirmation; and provided financing to a private-equity firm backed by Jeb Bush, according to a 2019 account in the Intercept.
The Bank of China added Angela Chao, the sister of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and sister-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to its board of directors, the Intercept reported.
President Trump and his family have faced questions of possible conflicts of interest as well, including the granting of Chinese trademarks to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who owned a fashion line.
Both the Biden and Trump examples involved a child of a powerful U.S. official getting special treatment or business opportunities from the Chinese government, but there are some differences. On one hand, Ivanka Trump’s trademark approval involved an expedited regulatory review, as opposed to an ongoing investment opportunity. On the other hand, unlike Biden, she was a White House official at the time, in addition to being the president’s daughter. And the president himself maintains extensive business interests around the world.
Schweizer told PolitiFact that “any time family members of politicians have business deals with foreign governments, it’s fair to raise the issue.” However, for the past four years, he said, “the Trump’s family members' financial relationships seem to have been well covered,” while Biden’s have not.
Others, however, believe the reason for concern about China ties should tilt more heavily toward the Trump family. He of the University of Chicago said that in his exposure to China over the past 10 years, “I rarely heard about Hunter. I heard a lot more about Ivanka.”
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