Donald Trump's accusations about Hunter Biden and a payout from China: A closer look

Then-Vice President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force Two in Beijing, China, with his son Hunter Biden and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden on Dec. 4, 2013. (AP)
Then-Vice President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force Two in Beijing, China, with his son Hunter Biden and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden on Dec. 4, 2013. (AP)

President Donald Trump has spent months criticizing business activities by Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, who could face Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

The first activities Trump and his allies spotlighted — the younger Biden’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company — have already led to a House impeachment inquiry against Trump. We  previously found no evidence that Joe Biden used his official activities to benefit his son.

More recently, as pressure for impeachment has grown, Trump and his allies have been spotlighting another story involving Hunter Biden — his business dealings in China.

"When Biden’s son walks out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund, and the biggest funds in the world can’t get money out of China, and he’s there for one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two, I think that’s a horrible thing," Trump said in remarks to the media at the United Nations. 

Biden’s camp says there are multiple problems with Trump’s account of Hunter Biden’s business dealings. But it is difficult to verify the size of the private investment fund independently of their assertions.

Here’s what we know and don’t know about what Hunter Biden did in China. 

How and when did Hunter Biden get involved in China?

In 2008, the younger Biden joined with Devon Archer (a family friend of then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.) in a string of investment and consulting firms. During Joe Biden’s tenure as vice president, firms run by Biden and Archer "pursued business with international entities that had a stake in American foreign policy decisions, sometimes in countries where connections implied political influence and protection," the New York Times reported.

One of these efforts led to business activities by Hunter Biden in China. This chapter of Biden’s life was chronicled by Peter Schweizer, a conservative author, in his 2019 book, "Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends." 

Schweizer also wrote the book "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich," which received some poor ratings from PolitiFact.

"In 2013, then-Vice President Biden and his son Hunter flew aboard Air Force Two to China," Schweizer wrote in a summary of his findings on "Ten days later, Hunter Biden’s firm scored a $1.5 billion deal with a subsidiary of the Chinese government’s Bank of China."

The book says that Archer and Biden teamed up with the Thornton Group, a firm with political ties in Massachusetts, to pursue business in China. Schweizer wrote that "10 days after Hunter Biden left China with his father, Rosemont Seneca (one of Hunter Biden’s firms) and the Bank of China created an investment fund called Bohai Harvest RST," or BHR.

The company was involved in a mixture of private enterprise and state-owned enterprise, Schweizer quoted the firm’s CEO, Jonathan Li, as saying.

What was Hunter Biden’s role?

George Mesires, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, does not deny that Hunter Biden had business in China. 

"The framework for BHR (Shanghai) Equity Investment Fund Management Co., an investment management company, began to take shape at least as early as June 2013," he told PolitiFact. 

"At least half of the firm’s stake is owned by Chinese entities, according to business records," the Washington Post has reported.

However, Mesires disputes multiple aspects of Schweizer’s account. His assertions could not be independently verified, since the enterprise was private.

For starters, Mesires said that Hunter Biden was an unpaid board member until October 2017, at which point he did take a financial stake in BHR. 

"In October 2017, after his father left government service, Hunter acquired a 10% interest in BHR," Mesires said. Today, he added, "Hunter’s capital commitment for such interest is approximately $420,000." This account tracks with what was uncovered in a lengthy New Yorker profile of Hunter Biden.

Moreover, to date, Hunter Biden "has not received any return of capital or compensation on account of his investment or his position on the board of directors," Mesires told PolitiFact.

How large was the value of the Bank of China deal?

A Wall Street Journal article about the firm published in July 2014 reported that the firm was "aiming to raise about $1.5 billion." This means that, a full six months after Hunter Biden left China, the $1.5 billion figure was aspirational, not confirmed. This undermines Trump’s version of events, which is that Biden quickly pocketed $1.5 billion after a meeting while the elder Biden was vice president.

Mesires said that, in any case, the $1.5 billion amount was never reached. The investment fund raised about $4.2 million "from various sources," Mesires said, without citing further detail. That would be a fraction of what Trump said.

What do we know about Hunter Biden’s 2013 China trip?

The New Yorker profile quotes a Beijing-based BHR official who said Hunter Biden arranged a quick meeting in the lobby of the American delegation’s hotel in Beijing between Vice President Biden and BHR CEO Li. This was followed by a "social meeting" between Hunter Biden and Li, the New Yorker reported.

But Mesires said the meeting with Joe Biden was not a business meeting. He told PolitiFact that Hunter Biden did not conduct any business on the trip to China with his father. "He traveled to China to accompany his daughter, the vice president’s granddaughter, who could not travel unattended for the trip with her grandfather." Mesires said.

In fact, Mesires said, "the formation documents for BHR were submitted to the relevant Chinese authorities for filing and registration in November 2013," which was before the trip began. In addition, he said, "Hunter was not a signatory to the formation documents because he did not acquire an equity interest until October 2017."

The issuance process for BHR’s license had "started well before then," Mesires said.

In his book, Schweizer acknowledges that little is known about Hunter Biden’s time in China on his father’s trip, aside from a few photo-ops.

"Where Hunter Biden spent the rest of his time on the trip remains largely a mystery," Schweizer writes. "There are actually more reports of his daughter Finnegan’s activities than his."

Were Hunter Biden’s actions ethical under the circumstances?

Experts in foreign policy and ethics said Hunter Biden was unwise to put his father in an awkward position, in regard to both Ukraine and China.

"It is apparent to me that Hunter Biden did not do anything illegal in China, but it would have been much better for Joe Biden’s political fortunes if Hunter Biden had not been involved in either Ukraine or China," said Lincoln A. Mitchell, an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. "In countries like Ukraine and China, regardless of what Hunter Biden might think or say, people want to do business with him almost entirely because of who is father is."

Yoshiko Herrera, a University of Wisconsin professor who previously headed the university’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia, agreed.

"It would have been more prudent to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest," she said, adding that if Hunter Biden "is providing some specific value to these companies other than the possibility of access to his father, it would be helpful to know exactly what that was, or is."

Both Mitchell and Herrera added that alleged conflicts of interest surround Trump and his own family, such as the granting of Chinese trademarks to his daughter, Ivanka Trump.