As the Republican Party heads into one of the more difficult electoral climates in recent memory, it is leaning heavily on the financial help of a mysterious donor who is, among other things, tied to a nonprofit group that hails the greatness of infamous communist dictator, Mao Zedong.
Sherry Li is not your prototypical GOP funder. She only started giving recently, and it’s not entirely clear what professional or ideological axe she has to grind. The main project with which she is associated—a Chinese-themed amusement park in upstate New York—is not the typical resume line for a well-heeled party supporter.
But since last year, Li has contributed more than $400,000 to Republican candidates and party organs. She’s donated to the RNC directly, and to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The $270,500 donation she has made to a joint fundraising account for President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, makes Li the third-largest contributor to the Trump Victory Committee during the current election cycle. One of her business associates, Lianbo Wang, is the second-largest, having contributed $329,500.
All the money has won Li access to a number of exclusive events for GOP donors, including events in New York hosted by Graham and Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the NRCC and another recipient of her campaign contributions. But despite all the checks written and doors opened, Li seems to be a mystery in Republican politics, including to those in her home state.
“Don’t know her,” former governor and 2016 GOP presidential candidate George Pataki remarked succinctly. The RNC and NRCC did not respond to questions about her contributions. One of the party’s top fundraisers was blunt in his take on Li and her business partner, telling The Daily Beast, “I have never heard of them.”
Where Li got the money to make the sizeable contributions is only slightly less mysterious than Li herself. She has given before, but in far smaller amounts: $2,500 in 2012 to Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) Senate campaign and $2,000 in 2013 to Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) re-election. In 2014, she gave $55,000 to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And in 2015, she started giving big—$32,300 to the RNC and $35,000 to Trump Victory.
She is currently planning a sprawling complex of Chinese-themed attractions in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Billed as China City of America, the sprawling park was initially designed to include a shopping mall, amusement park, Chinese historical attractions, and residential and office space. It’s since been scaled back and rebranded as an educational institution called the “Thompson Education Center.”
Li initially intended to fund the project using foreign financing through the EB-5 visa program, according to the project’s website. The EB-5 program grants U.S. visas to foreign investors in domestic businesses. It’s not clear whether that remains the plan or if this is the reason for her political giving. Li did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls seeking comment on this story.
As plans for China City have been scaled back, a new Chinese-themed venture has emerged. On paper, it has ties to Li’s network of New York businesses. The group is called the “United Nations Mao Zedong Foundation,” and records on file with the government of New York indicate that it shares an address with Li’s China City and a host of other businesses with which she’s involved.
The Mao Zedong Foundation is run by Chinese national and permanent U.S. resident Wu Guofa, a Boston resident who has also donated to Republican politicians and political groups. His online CV is sprinkled with prestigious-sounding titles earned through contributions to GOP political organs, such as “Member, Presidential Business Commission for President George W. Bush,” an old NRCC honorific.
Wu, who has also gone by Felix, founded a previous version of the Mao Zedong Foundation in 2010. He told state regulators in Massachusetts, where it was initially incorporated, that the foundation would be “supporting research on Mao Zedong and Maoism” and “supporting social activities for justice worldwide,” among other activities.
A translation of the group’s Chinese language website lists another set of goals: completely eliminating war and poverty around the world, and “establishing the community of human destiny proposed by [Chinese president] Xi Jinping.”
Massachusetts regulators revoked the foundation’s corporate status in 2012, records show. But in December 2017, Wu formed a new version of it in New York. Incorporation records list its address as 2 Centre View Drive in Oyster Bay, New York. Its website says that’s the group’s “global liaison headquarters,” and that its “global management headquarters” is in Hong Kong. The Oyster Bay address is the same one on file for 15 different companies that list Li as an officer in official state records.
It’s not clear what exactly the Mao Zedong Foundation does on a day-to-day basis. Its website claims that Wu has been awarded a host of honorary titles in the U.S. and China, including, most recently, an invitation to a recent state banquet in Beijing. He also claims to have advised a number of provincial governments in China.
An organization celebrating China’s brutal dictator, and the current leadership of its ruling Communist Party, is not the sort of affiliation one expects to see from a major Republican fundraiser. And neither Li nor Wu returned numerous phone calls and emails seeking clarification on this and other matters.
But that’s to be expected. Li rarely, if ever, talks to the press, issuing her statements mainly through press releases in which she boasts of her meetings with Republican officeholders and Trump administration officials.
She even claims to have conversed with the president himself at a campaign event in 2016, according to a press release issued after the election. “As a real estate developer,” Li says she told Trump, “I share the same American dream and the same American value with you.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein