Deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing have done little to disrupt a multimillion-dollar lobbying and influence campaign in the United States by one of China’s biggest companies, Alibaba Group, according to figures provided by a U.S. monitoring organization.
Publicly available information accumulated by OpenSecrets, a Washington nonprofit that tracks campaign finance and lobbying data, shows the Chinese e-commerce giant spent more than $2.5 million on U.S. lobbying last year, down from about $3 million in 2021 and a peak of more than $3.1 million in 2020 – a presidential election year.
The available data show that lobbyists hired by the company spend millions millions of dollars on political donations to members of the U.S. Congress and various government departments with responsibilities in the areas of U.S.-China trade, finance and technology.
OpenSecrets noted that Alibaba itself “did not donate, rather the money came from the organization's individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate family members.” VOA reached out to Alibaba, but it declined to comment on its lobbying activities.
Alibaba, whose diverse range of business interests includes e-commerce, technology, electronic payment services and cloud computing, is ranked as the world’s 29th-largest corporation with a market capitalization of $281.8 billion.
Ten of the 39 issues Alibaba lobbied on in 2022 were related to trade, while another eight were related to copyrights, patents and trademarks, according to the OpenSecrets analysis.
Public information shows that Mercury, a lobbying firm, lobbied the White House repeatedly on behalf of Alibaba on technology policy issues, access to U.S. capital markets, issues related to e-commerce, and small- and medium-sized enterprise export promotion.
Each campaign year, lobbyists hired by Alibaba donate to a large number of candidates, according to OpenSecrets. Since the 2014 midterm elections, the donations have generally skewed toward the Democratic Party.
Most of the recipients of political donations made by lobbyists hired by Alibaba during the 2020 election, which totaled more than $1.2 million, were Democrats. A total of $14,000 went to then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
During the 2022 midterm elections, lobbyists hired by Alibaba $130,000 to the Democratic National Committee Service Corp., described by Bloomberg as “a nonprofit organization ... coordinating party organizational activities including civil rights, health care and Social Security.” The individual candidate, however, who received the most in donations was former Republican Representative Liz Cheney.
As of the end of 2022, 19 of the 30 professional lobbyists hired by Alibaba had worked for the U.S. federal government and Congress, including four former federal lawmakers, according to public information compiled by OpenSecrets. Among them were David Vitter, who was a senator from 2005 to 2017; Toby Moffett, who was a member of Congress from 1975 to 1983, and Bryan Lanza, who was communications director for former President Donald Trump's transition team from 2016 to 2017.
Through them, Alibaba had access to the White House and several other federal agencies, as well as to both chambers of Congress.
Lawmakers' former advisers, aides
Many former advisers and aides to members of Congress are also lobbying for Alibaba, according to public information on LinkedIn, an employment-focused social media platform. Brian McGuire, former chief of staff of current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is one of them. Eric Pelletier, Alibaba's head of international government affairs, was deputy assistant for legislative affairs under former President George W. Bush. Brian Wild, deputy assistant to former Vice President Dick Cheney, was also hired by Alibaba.
It is not uncommon for former government officials to work as lobbyists when their party is out of power and return to government when their party returns to office. The practice, sometimes referred to as a “revolving door,” is the subject of occasional ethics concerns, particularly regarding matters of foreign influence and national security.
“When we're talking about the revolving doors like this, we're actually talking about a national security issue or at least the potential for a national security issue,” said Ben Freeman, a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in an interview with VOA Mandarin.
“And that alone should give pause to folks when they're hearing about a former member of Congress working on behalf of a foreign company” such as Alibaba, where the Communist Party of China holds ownership stakes in at least two of its subsidiaries.
Although Alibaba is not a state-owned enterprise, in recent years the Chinese government’s tightening oversight of Alibaba has raised concerns about the company’s operational independence.
Last December, a sub-entity under the Cyberspace Administration of China bought a stake in an Alibaba subsidiary and stationed an official there, according to the Reuters news agency.
Reuters also reported that last September, a subsidiary of Zhejiang Radio and Television Group, a Chinese government-backed company, took a 1% stake in the Youku Film and Television unit owned by Alibaba and assigned a government official to Youku's board of directors.
Separately, Alibaba has been accused of developing facial recognition tools to identify Uyghurs, an ethnic group in northwest China that has been subject to repressive government policies described by the U.S. government as genocide.
News outlet involvement
Alibaba is not only active in the political arena, but also in expanding its influence in U.S. news outlets.
China expert Bill Bishop noticed that a newsletter from Semafor, an online news media outlet established last year, had the words "supported by Alibaba" written in the title. Not long ago, another online news outlet, Axios, published a newsletter that was sponsored by Alibaba, according to the conservative media outlet Daily Caller.
Bishop tweeted on January 30, “Axios, semafor…Alibaba sponsoring key DC email newsletters, makes sense.”
According to Daily Caller and verified by VOA, Alibaba has also sponsored The Hill, Punchbowl News and Politico in the past few years.
In response to VOA’s inquiries, both Semafor and Axios said sponsors do not affect their journalistic independence.
Semafor’s spokesman said in an email, “Advertisers have no bearing on our editorial coverage and we maintain a strict separation between news and third-party advertisement.”
Axios also replied, “Like any serious, trusted media source, advertisers have no input or involvement with editorial content at Axios.”
On January 31, Alibaba sponsored another event held by Semafor in which two members of Congress were invited to discuss e-commerce and the future of the U.S. economy.
Pelletier, Alibaba's head of international government affairs, took the stage before the discussion began and said, “Alibaba every day gets up to help U.S. companies, small and medium enterprises as well as multinational companies, to sell their products to other consumers around the world.”
Also participating in the Semafor event was U.S. Representative Darin LaHood who, public records show, received a $500 campaign donation from Pelletier during the 2022 midterm elections.
Freeman, the Quincy Institute researcher, said he found it troubling that neither Semafor nor Pelletier disclosed that contribution prior to or during the event.
“It’s very problematic when you have events like this, where there's a campaign funding tie behind it or any sort of other financial tie behind events like this that aren't disclosed,” Freeman said, “because then the viewers of these events think they're looking at just objective comments of the speakers, which may or may not be the case.”
The United States Senate Lobbying Disclosure database tracks contributions to political candidates and organizations. It includes tracking of contributions made to candidates and political organizations involved in House races.
According to the database, Pelletier, who is listed as employed by Alibaba Group Holding Limited, filed 15 reports listing 25 contributions to political candidates and organizations from November 2016 to March 2022.
The Federal Election Commission filings of individual contributions show Pelletier made 41 contributions to political candidates and organizations from December 2017 to March 2022.
VOA reached out to Alibaba for comment but the company declined to comment for publication.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article failed to make clear that the Communist Party of China holds an ownership stake in Alibaba subsidiaries rather than the parent company. The story has also been amended to show that a second database shows a different number of political donations by Eric Pelletier.