By Marc Abizeid
The ongoing controversy surrounding the worldwide Olympic torch protests prompted by China’s deadly crackdown in Tibet last March is shining new light on UC Regents Chairman Richard Blum’s ties to the communist nation.
Appointed to a 12-year term in 2002 by former Governor Gray Davis, Blum has been a major force in the investing world. He heads two large investment firms — Blum Capital Partners, L.P., and Newbridge Capital LLC, the latter of which was created in 1994 to focus on Asia.
Blum has brought tremendous success to Newbridge Capital through the company’s lucrative deals in Asia. Most notable among them was the purchase of 18 percent of Shenzhen Development Bank in 2004, making Newbridge Capital the first foreign company to control a Chinese bank.
For many investors looking to turn a profit in Asia, China’s deadly response to Tibet’s pro-independence protests in March was just another chapter in the decades-old conflict between the two sides. But for Blum, who has expressed cultural interest in the region and maintained a 30-year relationship with Tibet’s spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the violence there may be hitting too close to home.
The latest phase of violence in Tibet erupted on March 10, when 300 monks protested to demand the release of other monks held in Chinese prisons. China’s paramilitary police responded by opening fire on the protesters, killing at least eight people.
As a gesture to reveal his commitment to Tibet, Blum founded the American Himalayan Foundation in 1979 as a nonprofit organization to support dozens of projects to provide health care, education, and other forms of assistance to the peoples of the Himalayas.
And two years ago, the Richard C. Blum Center for Developing Economies was launched at UC Berkeley as a project to alleviate global poverty through programs teaching methods of foreign assistance while encouraging entrepreneurship. Honorary trustees of the center include former president Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama himself.
“Richard Blum has been a friend of the Tibetan people for three decades,” the Dalai Lama wrote in a 2006 letter to Blum. “I am delighted to know our message of kindness and compassion has taken a new practical dimension by the establishment of this new center at the University of California, Berkeley.”
Last month, Blum’s humanitarian efforts caught the attention of the International House, a program center at UC Berkeley established in 1930 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. with the stated mission of fostering inter-cultural understanding and promoting peace. According to Shanti Corrigan, director of development and alumni relations at the I-House, Blum was honored with the Global Citizen of the Year award for his devotion to helping the people of Tibet.
“Our awards recognize efforts by individuals to advance understanding and peace,” she wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press (CHP). “Richard Blum has clearly done this through his activism to improve the quality of life for the poor and oppressed in Asia and Africa.”
But not everyone is convinced that Blum can be concerned about peace in Tibet while simultaneously engaging in business with China.
Laurel Sutherlin, a member of Students for a Free Tibet and a former UC Santa Cruz student, said that contributing to the growth of China’s economy before addressing the issue of human rights “sends the wrong signal.”
“I think there is a contradiction there,” Sutherlin said. “If [Blum’s] primary mission was to support the Tibetan people, then that would be explicit.”
Sutherlin was one of three demonstrators who scaled the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco last month ahead of the Olympic Torch relay. The activists hung a pair of pro-Tibet banners 370 feet above the water. He said that a recent bill passed by Congress condemning China for its attacks on Tibet was “encouraging,” but hoped the government would put more weight on China to relinquish its hold on Tibet.
“The government should be taking a more firm stance,” he said. “They are in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama, but politically, when it comes down to it, they don’t have the guts to really do something meaningful to challenge China. It’s going to take something going to the next level — something of economic pressure.”
But Nirvikar Singh, professor of economics at UCSC, expressed doubt that a more staunch policy toward China would influence its treatment of Tibet. Singh, who said that growing up in India has made him “much more aware of Tibet,” told CHP that the government’s reluctance to take a firmer stance on China has more to do with the threat China poses militarily as opposed to economically.
“There really isn’t any significant difference whether it’s Bush or Clinton … I think it’s the military strategic aspects of China that probably dominate foreign policy thinking in this respect,” Singh said. “To the extent that trade does contribute to Chinese growth, I think that has been one factor in what has been going on in Tibet. It’s not necessarily the growth per se, but I think China just feels that to grow, it needs to exploit Tibetan lands.”
Singh also commented on the idea presented by some economists that a liberal trade policy serves as an effective strategy to overcome cultural boundaries and encourage peace, but said that he didn’t believe Tibet’s case exemplified the theory.
“I think trade relations can promote certain kinds of understanding and positive interactions,” he said, “but it’s not like somehow the situation is automatically all lovey-dovey.”
Throughout many of Blum’s philanthropic and business endeavors, he has counted on a powerful ally to stick by his side — his wife, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
But Feinstein added an element of controversy to matters concerning her husband’s overseas business ventures when speculation began to arise that her senatorial stature was contributing to Blum’s ability to secure deals.
In 1997, Blum Capital Partners acquired stake in Perini Corp., a construction company which was awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to repair infrastructure in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion. Blum also served as vice president and a director on the board at URS Corp. — another construction firm that won bids to build in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A report by investigative journalist Peter Byrne in Silicon Valley’s Metro newspaper revealed that the two companies were awarded a combined total of $1.55 billion in Pentagon contracts between 2001 and 2005 — all of which were approved by the Military Construction Appropriations Senate subcommittee at a time when Feinstein served as its ranking member and chairperson. Blum resigned from his position at URS in 2005, and Feinstein left her position on that committee last year.
The couple also came under heavy scrutiny in the 1990s when Blum’s growing investments in China coincided with his wife’s election to the U.S. Senate. Once in office, Feinstein advocated to ease trade restrictions with China and in 1999, voted to grant China the “Most Favored Nation” status, effectively normalizing trade.
Blum responded to criticism by liquidating his assets acquired in China through Newbridge Capital and donating them to his American Himalayan Foundation in 1999. But Blum held onto his position as co-chairman of Newbridge Capital, which continues to heavily invest in China.
Neither Blum nor representatives of the American Himalayan Foundation could be reached for comment.
For over 30 years, the couple has been pressing China’s government to negotiate an accord with Tibet. Blum even accompanied his wife on three of her official trips to China in the 1980s and 1990s where they delivered hand-written letters from the Dalai Lama to the Chinese leadership pleading for a meeting.
Most recently, Feinstein expressed opposition to China’s policy toward Tibet by co-sponsoring a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate, calling for a dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama following China’s killings in Tibet two months ago.
“It is my hope that the highest leadership of the Chinese government will sit down with His Holiness the Dalai Lama face-to-face and negotiate how to bring about meaningful cultural and religious autonomy for the Tibetan people,” Feinstein was quoted in a press release issued by her office last month.
But in March, Feinstein urged San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to hold off from issuing a resolution condemning China’s human rights record. The resolution, which Sutherlin says he helped draft, passed in an 8–3 vote despite Feinstein’s warning that the move was “premature.”
“Dianne Feinstein actually held a press conference in D.C. to say she hopes that San Francisco does not pass that measure,” Sutherlin said. “And actually, they did pass it and that was very encouraging, but I was disappointed that she said that. I think that we’ve seen decades of diplomatic attempts to get China to change its behavior and this kind of quiet diplomacy that [Feinstein’s] talking about hasn’t shown any signs of working.”