HONG KONG—Chinese consumers are a finicky bunch. Plenty of American businesses have attempted to break into China, but a mixture of cross-cultural flops, unpredictable and rapid changes in tastes, and tight government regulation has brought down the likes of Home Depot and Best Buy, and thwarted the global domination of tech giants like Facebook and Google.
But when Nicole Meyer, who is a sister of Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, played up her relationship with her brother—a flagrant wink-wink-nudge-nudge using the the cachet of the White House—she was tapping into China’s strange Trump love, and something more.
The connections that Meyer was evoking in front of 100 potential investors and clients in Beijing’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel were obvious to the well-heeled men and women there. She is the sister of an American princeling, the sort of position that is bestowed on a limited few based on their family connections rather than actual achievements—and should they hand over some money to the Kushner family, successful entry to the U.S. would be guaranteed.
The whole Meyer/Kushner pitch aligns with what the Chinese know about their own ruling party’s “royalty,” where the princelings (and princesslings) have been opting for jobs in the private sector, leveraging family connections as part of the political elite.
Just last year, JP Morgan Chase was fined $264 million by U.S. regulators for hiring Chinese princelings, a move that was meant to bolster the bank’s business in the Asia-Pacific region, but was also a violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Meyer, as you’ll recall, touted the property dubbed One Journal Square in New Jersey as something desirable for wealthy Chinese individuals, stating bluntly that they would be awarded with fast-track immigration processing as long as they “invested” $500,000 in the United States.
The visa program, called EB-5, is an attractive channel for some Chinese citizens who want to divert cash—some might say launder it—outside their homeland. There are multiple reasons for choosing to do this—some are looking for ways to bypass the strict banking controls that are in place in China; others want to live in a place where dirty air, dodgy food, talk of war on their doorstep, dubious “confessions,” and spy-related paranoia are no longer part of the everyday experience.
Some others, a rare few, are merely after better pre-collegiate education options for their children, going to the lengths of uprooting the entire family to get to the USA.
The Kushner real-estate empire is making a play to profit from those insecurities, in turn exploiting the EB-5 investor visa program.
This particular immigration procedure is, bluntly, a means for rich folks to acquire American residency. While other means of settling in the U.S. might involve a mountain of paperwork, the only kind of paper required under EB-5, to all intents and purposes, is the greenback.
All this is well known to Trump, who re-upped the EB-5 program a few days ago. Indeed, as Bloomberg reported last year, when Kushner Companies (then-CEO: Jared Kushner) were building Trump Bay Street in New Jersey, the firm they hired to attract investors circulated a video touting the EB-5 benefits to be had by buying there.
According to State Department statistics (PDF), 7,516 mainland-born Chinese citizens were allocated EB-5 visas last year—the lion’s share. The second-most numerous national group were Vietnam-born persons: They acquired 334 visas under the same program. Here are a few more numbers: In 2005, the program granted only 350 visas in total; in 2007, 700 visas were issued; in 2014, EB-5 reached its quota of 10,000 for the first time ever. The numbers speak for themselves: The program is now skewed heavily to benefit Chinese investors.
For a time, Donald J. Trump was the xenophobe’s candidate of choice, as cries of “Build that wall!” reverberated at rallies and claims that the man “beat China all the time” fueled news cycles. But President Trump has turned the tables.
With Jared Kushner’s name showing up in Beijing during a shameless sales pitch, drawing a direct line between his name and a problematic visa program that has been riddled with fraud, even bringing potentially corrupt money into America, the first family of America is now stained with another shade of embarrassment.
That Jared Kushner was officially absorbed into the Trump administration as a senior adviser—and Middle East peace broker, shadow diplomat, and the person to reinvent government, among other labors—only makes the Kushner family’s wanton cash-grab in China appear even more unprincipled.
No doubt the Kushner family knew before their sales pitch in Beijing that there would be fallout—in the West—if only in the form of a tarnished brand image. But a bit of bad press at home is merely the cost of doing business, one that carries negligible impact in hard-currency revenue.
On Sunday, Kushner Companies was quick to issue a statement to The Washington Post saying that it “apologizes if that mention of [Meyer’s] brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors. That was not Meyer’s intention.” The firm then went on to emphasize that the real-estate project would provide $180 million in tax revenue in the next 30 years.
Right now, when there are major seismic waves hitting Washington, D.C. With the Russia probe only in its inception, and the termination of FBI Director James Comey leaving many wondering what will come next, one must ask: When will the Trump and Kushner families’ ties with China be examined in detail?
One might recall that on the day Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-al-Lago, Ivanka Trump secured China trademarks for her clothing, jewelry, and accessories brand.
So far, no one in the Trump-Kushner circuit has been held accountable. But it could hardly be more obvious that the family of a presidential candidate who failed to win a majority vote in America is profiting massively from its position.
The people of the United States might someday focus on this, and might someday care. But the Chinese? They know about princelings and princesslings, and they know working with them is just part of the art of the deal.