Freedom’s Watch and the Beijing Olympics

Is it possible that Freedom’s Watch has decided to focus on Republican Congressional campaigns, rather than the presidential campaign, because its principal funder, Sheldon Adelson, is worried that John McCain’s relative hawkishness toward China may be bad for his casino business in Macau? Adelson, who, according to the New York Times, has contributed virtually all of the $30 million Freedom’s Watch had spent on the current election cycle as of four weeks ago, has been blamed for much of the managerial chaos that in March prompted an exodus of senior staffers from the group, is known as a prickly character, so the group’s apparent decision to stay on the sidelines in the presidential race, at least for now, probably has nothing to do with future relations with Beijing.

Still, two articles forwarded by my former colleague here, Eli Clifton, certainly suggest that Adelson, whom Fortune magazine recently listed as the third wealthiest person in the U.S., has a lot invested in good relations with the Chinese Communist leadership, especially in regard to the Beijing Olympics.

The first article, from the Casino City Times recounts the testimony of one Richard Suen, a Hong Kong businessman who is suing Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation, in which he recounts the alleged efforts by Adelson to ensure that the Republican-led Congress — and particularly then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay — did not do anything to prejudice Beijing’s Olympics bid back in 2001, when Adelson was actively pursuing authorization to build a hotel-casino in Macau.

“Richard Suen told a Clark County District Court jury that Las Vegas Sands Corp. President Bill Weidner bragged about company Chairman Sheldon Adelson helping kill a congressional measure aimed at stopping Beijing from winning the games.

‘He said it was a done deal. Mr. Weidner said to me that ”’Sheldon’s got it fixed,” ‘ Suen told jurors, recalling a July 2001 telephone call between Adelson and then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay about a potential bipartisan resolution seeking to block China from getting the Olympics.

Suen was traveling with Adelson and Weidner in Beijing to a meeting he had arranged with the city’s mayor when the phone call was made. He said Adelson told him he had just gotten off the phone with DeLay and the legislation wouldn’t reach the House floor in time to stop the Olympic vote or it would be killed altogether.

‘The mayor said ‘thank you’ to Mr. Adelson for your help on the Olympics and Mr. Adelson went into an explanation of what he did,’ Suen testified.”

The lawsuit contends that the Las Vegas Sands owes Suen a lot of money for his role in setting up a series of meetings in Beijing between government leaders there and Sands executives that resulted in the company winning a an extremely lucrative Macau gambling concession in 2002. As the Times noted in a profile of Adelson in January, that concession blossomed into two giant casinos which together have surpassed the Las Vegas Strip as “the world’s top gambling market.”

While Adelson and the Sands strongly deny Suen’s allegations, the second article forwarded by Eli suggests that, whoever it was who has determined the route and participants of the controversial Olympic torch relay between Athens and Beijing, decided that the Sands deserved some recognition. The May 2 article from the website notes that Mark Brown, the current president of the Venetian and Sands casinos in Macao, “will be the only American to participate in Macau’s leg of the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay for XXIX Olympiad that begins Aug. 8.”

“It’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Brown, who noted gaming revenue is so strong there that Macau generated more gaming dollars last quarter than Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined. “But I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not a little nervous. There are so many kooks out there, you never know what to expect. This could be a destination for people who couldn’t get through anywhere else. But the police and home security people here are very good. We hope everything runs smooth.”

Now, of course, Adelson has a perfect right to separate his private political causes, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and Freedom’s Watch, from his corporate investments, and it’s important to note that all of the major gaming companies in Macau were invited to take part in the relay. On the other hand, given Adelson’s control over his Macau operations, his status as the main funder of a political entity with the rather idealistic name of “Freedom’s Watch,” and all of the controversy surrounding the relay itself, there is a certain irony in the situation, to say the least.

Again, it’s probably a stretch to connect the lack of Freedom’s Watch funding for the presidential race with Adelson’s Macau interests, but it’s pretty clear that Adelson, perhaps much like Rupert Murdoch, has a good deal invested in good relations with Beijing, and when McCain’s current foreign-policy guru, Robert Kagan, foresees a new Cold War between the West and autocracies led by China and Russia, he may be a bit uneasy.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.