Who is Li Yang, the Asian spa founder who joined Trump’s MAGA movement?
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South Florida day spa entrepreneur Li “Cindy” Yang — now famous for her Super Bowl party selfie with the president — used her burgeoning political access to bring Xianqin Qu, a leader from the foreign arm of the Communist Party of China, to an event where she met top Republicans and members of the Trump administration, including Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump.
Qu is the president of the Florida Chapter of the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification — a group ”directly subordinate” to the Communist Party of China, according to a 2018 U.S. government report. The group’s stated purpose is to push for reunification of China and Taiwan, although in recent years members in chapters around the world actively promoted a wide range of policies in harmony with Beijing’s agenda abroad.
“Blood is thicker than soil,” said Qu, speaking about China/Taiwan relations at a South Florida event hosted by the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification last summer, according to a translation of the organization’s website.
Organizations like the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification “actively cultivate ties to campaign donors and politicians in the United States in order to lobby for Beijing’s policy priorities, [and] encourage overseas Chinese to get involved in politics to advocate for Beijing’s interests,” said a 2018 staff research report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Although liaisons with lobbyists from foreign governments are normal, Qu gained access to some of Trump’s closest allies not through official channels but at political and social events. (The United States also seeks to project its influence abroad in informal ways.)
The governments of China and the United States are not allies and have disagreements over corporate espionage, cyber warfare, military policy and trade. For decades, conservative orthodoxy in the United States required a strong allegiance to anti-communist Taiwan over mainland China. But that ideology is changing as the Asian superpower has become more business friendly.
Politically, U.S.-China relations have soured over economic concerns, including an ongoing trade war. However, President Trump’s family has taken steps to do business in China, including several recently approved trademarks for Ivanka Trump and an investor visa program promoted in Beijing by the sister of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.
Through Yang, Qu gained access to high-profile events featuring Trump aides and family members on at least two occasions.
Yang arranged for a group of Chinese expats, including Qu, to attend a Republican fundraiser for Donald Trump at a restaurant in New York on Dec. 2, 2017. Online media organizations and the National Committee of Asian American Republicans social media posts about the event say Qu was there as a guest of the committee, also called the Asian GOP. Yang was the organizer of the Asian GOP contingent at the event, according to Cliff Li, the founder of the political committee where Yang volunteered as a primary fundraiser.
At the breakfast meet-and-greet, Qu was photographed with Conway and several Republican donors with deep pockets. A White House spokesperson said Conway does not know Qu.
A GOP spokeswoman said it appears the photo of Conway and Qu — given the dozens of people behind Conway — was not a preplanned photo op. The December 2017 event had about 500 people, the spokeswoman said. Background checks are not required for events that don’t involve high-level donors. Price of admission started at $1,000 for general access and was $2,700 for VIPs, according to the invitation.
In January 2018, Qu also attended Safari Night at Mar-a-Lago — a charity event co-sponsored by the Asian GOP and attended by Trump’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau. Photos show Qu among the Asian GOP attendees. Again, Yang had organized the group, according to Li.
Participating in groups that are international offshoots of the Chinese government does not necessarily mean that the participant actively promotes the party’s agenda or is acting on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. But members with access to prominent political figures can create opportunities for influence, the U.S. government research report says.
Yang, who has attended a handful of other events at Mar-a-Lago as well as the White House, also served as a vice president of the newly founded Florida chapter of the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification in 2016, according to “Foreign Policy” magazine.
Qu isn’t known to be an ardent Republican activist.
“She [Qu] is not involved much with the Asian GOP,” Li said. “She’s not politically active in the domestic [issues].” But Qu’s unification organization has a known foreign political purpose, Li and others say.
The council has at least 200 chapters in 90 countries, including 33 chapters in the United States registered as the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification, according to the commission report.
The Herald could not reach Qu for comment on this story, despite numerous phone calls. A woman at a home Qu owns in Miramar declined to identify herself or speak to a reporter.
Records and social media posts indicate that Yang is both business partners and social acquaintances with Qu. In August 2015, the two women founded the Overseas International Female Organization, later renamed the Women’s Charity Foundation. According to its mission statement, the foundation was originally intended to promote cultural exchanges for women, but later changed to advocating for persons with disabilities. It has hosted only a smattering of events, including one Miami-based fashion show that a co-sponsor called “embarrassing” and “unsuccessful.”
In 2016, Qu attended a Fourth of July celebration at Yang’s waterfront Miami condo.
Karyn Turk, a spokeswoman for Palm Beach Law Offices representing Cindy Yang, said Qu is simply a friend of Yang’s and Yang loves the United States.
“China’s a Communist country so anybody who is a national of China is automatically thought of as a Communist. I think the media and the left side of the nation is making a stretch with this,” she said in a statement.
Turk’s husband, Evan, who is representing Yang, said Yang is a victim by association for having friends in the same ethnic group. “This is strictly because she’s an Asian Republican at a time where the left is reaching for anything to discredit the administration. This is reminiscent of McCarthyism.”
Through the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification, the Communist Party of China works to communicate with and influence people living overseas who are of Chinese descent, which the party views as belonging to the People’s Republic of China, said Matt Schrader, a China analyst for the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
“Overseas, the [Communist Party] United Front’s purpose is to advance Communist Party policy goals around the world,” Schrader said. The United Front is an agency of China’s Communist Party that carries out foreign influence missions.
No major Chinese-government affiliated groups are known to have successfully influenced U.S. politics. But they are believed to have influenced politicians in at least one other country.
In 2017, a former Australian senator argued against his party and in favor of China’s position on territorial disputes, as a wealthy political donor with ties to the Communist Party’s United Front groups stood by his side.
Yang’s dual roles as massage parlor operator and political activist with access to President Trump and other Republican luminaries became known after the Miami Herald published a story highlighting her social media accounts, which have since been taken down. She was the founder and former owner of the Treasure Coast spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others were busted for buying sex.
Kraft has denied breaking the law.