Late last week, it was reported that Li “Cindy” Yang, the Florida woman who used to own the infamous massage parlor where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft allegedly solicited prostitution, has played a prominent role at the highest levels of political power—running an investment business that offered to sell Chinese clients access to President Trump and his family,” being “an officer of two groups with ties to China’s Communist government,” and arranging “for a group of Chinese business executives to attend a paid fundraiser for President Donald Trump.”
Of course, the reason reporters were digging into Yang’s activities in the first place was because shortly after Kraft was charged with paying for oral sex at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa formerly owned by Yang, photos emerged of her watching the Super Bowl at Mar-a-Lago with President Trump.
Yang also was a volunteer official with the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, colloquially called the Asian GOP. Yesterday afternoon, that group’s executive director, Cliff Zhonggang Li, explained how Yang came to be involved with the Asian GOP, her role in it, and when he learned of her other activities.
And his explanation differs dramatically in two major ways from what Li previously shared with the Miami Herald.
Li told Fast Company on Thursday that he wasn’t aware of Yang arranging access for Chinese businessmen to the president and his inner circle—despite having attended at least one such event—until reading news accounts last week about her role. Yet he told the Miami Herald earlier this week that he grew concerned about Yang’s endeavors in late 2017.
And while Li told the Herald that he and Yang weren’t as close after late 2017, he told Fast Company that they spoke regularly right up until she garnered national attention last week.
“I spoke with Cindy quite often up to March 8,” Li said. “She was one of the important volunteers.”
The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Fast Company: How would you explain your relationship to Cindy?
Cliff Li: We met each other in May of 2015 in one of the local Chinese community associations. I was very impressed with her ability to do event organizing. Since then, she has been working with me. We worked to get involved in the campaigns of 2015 and 2016. She was very important, one of the top volunteers in the organization in both roles; one is fundraising, one is community outreach in Florida, which is a very important space. So we worked closely, I know her fairly well.
FC: Were you surprised to learn the information that’s come to light about her founding that massage parlor and allegedly selling access to the president and his inner circle via Mar-a-Lago?
CL: First of all, she has a lot of pictures with the president and his inner circle. That’s no surprise to me. Because when we did the campaign, when we are actively promoting conservative values in our Asian community, which has been done more in the previous years, we have the chance to be in touch with the candidate. Those candidates are very close to the people working for them. So sometimes Cindy goes there to snap a picture. Actually there are a whole lot more. Because she’s the event organizer, she gets better opportunities to take pictures.
FC: What about the article in Mother Jones where it found an advertisement she’d placed to help other people get that kind of introduction. And there was that fundraiser in New York, I believe you were there, at Cipriani’s in December 2017, where it seems like she also was facilitating access for Chinese businessmen?
CL: OK. That’s a lot of accusations there. First of all, I was not aware of her private business as alleged online, I think she called it GY [U.S.] Investments. That part, I’m not aware [of]. I couldn’t comment on that. If I knew that was the case, I would strongly discourage that.
FC: Did you only learn about that last week when the story broke about it?
CL: Yes. For the alleged activity, I think it’s wrong. I’m not a legal professional, I don’t know if it’s legal or how she did it. Because if the business has American or Chinese citizens with a green card, that might be OK, if she tried to do the fundraising, which is legal. However I just don’t know the details of it. I couldn’t really comment on that.
We have this Asian-American conservative movement, it’s a very young movement. A lot of us are not that much aware of the compliance issue. The similar thing happened in the Clinton years. If you remember, he had an issue of a fund moving money through legal citizens or green card holders. So her fundraising role was dismissed in February 2018, agreed to mutually between us. And I started to try to steer the Asian GOP more toward political campaigns, to help our candidates, to help the president instead of the high-ticket [events], those kind of event items.
She had two roles in the Asian GOP: one is the fundraising, one is the community outreach. Her fundraising role was dismissed in February 2018, but the community outreach or engagement role was dismissed… since I haven’t talked to her, I just did that on March 8 to avoid distractions.
So basically in terms of alleged activity, I don’t like that. Regardless of the details, legal or not, it does not go in line with the Asian GOP.
But [her] other business, such as massage spas, called a parlor, right? I was there a couple of times. That’s her private family business. It’s not my business and it has nothing to do with the Asian GOP operations. So I was there a couple of times and I found the spa to be very professional. So I don’t think owning a spa is the problem.
Right, no. It’s what transpired in the spa, after her ownership, and what those men were receiving in the spa, is what the issue is.
Right, right. So in terms of the spa, I don’t see a problem, even though it was alleged there was some activity. When I talked to Cindy a couple years back about the spa, she assured me she has a policy against those kinds of activities. I think it’s a little bit more politically motivated. I think they tried to stretch far.
Another Mother Jones article reported that Yang had senior roles in the Florida branch of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China as well as the Miami chapter of the Chinese Association of Science and Technology. This article reports that both of those organizations have direct links to China’s Communist Party.
First of all, for the Council of Reunification, she mentioned that to me before, in the early stage. I think it was 2015 or early 2016. Because she was very active always in local Chinese–American community associations. So I heard back then she attended a few events. I don’t know the details, I never attend those things. My belief is that Council has a political agenda internationally.
In terms of Asian GOP, we are strictly domestic politics. We want to promote public participation. I don’t like foreign shenanigans. However, she gets involved in a lot of things. I think after she got involved with Asian GOP, she stayed away from these things. By the way, I know Cindy likes the spotlight. She’s a political novice, I don’t think she is much involved in that Council at all other than having a title there.
Second thing is the Chinese Association of Science and Technology. That was totally wrong what the media wrote. That’s a translation issue. I’m very familiar with that organization. I also helped the association establish a South Florida chapter. Most members are Chinese-Americans. That’s not a China organization. That’s made of people, mostly either scientists or scholars or engineers, Chinese-Americans, who are mostly citizens, like I am, or green card holders. I’m not aware that the association is under any control of any Chinese government entity. Doing this science and technology exchange between China and the U.S. by nature it might have some contact with government. But it’s not under any control of the Chinese government
When was the last time that you spoke with Cindy?
I spoke with Cindy quite often up to March 8. She was one of the important volunteers. So we speak quite frequently, but not in the last month. In the last month, we do have a few texts back and forth, basically informing each other of the decisions or the situation. But we haven’t spoken.
What would you say to her if she got in touch?
Boy, wow, that’s a very hypothetical question. But first of all I’m very disappointed in the situation about alleged GY [US Investments] consulting, if that is true. I think that could be a major, major distraction. We’re promoting our conservative causes and when you introduce that factor, the Chinese business as alleged? That’s a disaster. If I knew that, I would have dismissed her from the organization a long time ago. If what was alleged is true, I would be very disappointed.
However at the same time I really appreciate the hard work she has done for the organization. Again, she is a political novice, But throughout the last couple years, she learned a lot, she worked a lot, and she loved the community. She loved the country, And she really loved the president. She’s a big fan of the president. So I appreciate all what she has done for our mission to promote the public participation, all the way from voter registration to soliciting legal donations from our community. I wish her well.