This post has been updated, 7:10 p.m.
This post has been corrected, 2:55 p.m.
Alibaba chief Jack Ma has done more to penetrate the top ranks of the Trump administration and the Trump family than any other foreign business leader. Meanwhile, his investment company is trying to take over a large piece of the U.S. commercial financial infrastructure. Lawmakers and experts are asking if that’s really in America’s interest.
This week in Washington, Ma cemented his preeminence as the Trump administration’s favorite Chinese businessman and interlocutor. On Monday, Ma had dinner at Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s Washington residence. It was not his first meal with a very senior Trump administration official. He was spotted dining alone with Ivanka Trump at a local D.C. restaurant last month.
On Tuesday, he brokered a meeting of 20 top U.S. and Chinese business leaders hosted by Ross, along with Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman. The meeting was Ma’s idea, according to Schwarzman, timed one day before a key government-to-government U.S.-China dialogue.
“Jack Ma has been able to gain access at the highest levels, including the president,” said Michael Wessel, a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an investigative and oversight body created by Congress. “As the co-host of Tuesday’s meeting, it’s a sign of his early success of convincing this administration he is a valued partner.”
Ma’s broad pitch to the Trump administration is that he can open up the Chinese e-commerce market to small and medium-sized U.S. businesses, as he promised to do after meeting the president-elect at Trump Tower in January.
Given the various barriers to U.S. companies doing business in China, that promise will be hard to keep. But in the interim, Ma has something he wants from the Trump team: approval of his planned takeover of the second-largest financial remittance firm in the United States.
In April, Ma’s investment firm Ant Financial struck a deal to acquire MoneyGram. The Dallas-based firm allows people to send money to each other from about 350,000 locations in more than 200 countries. The deal is Ant’s largest acquisition in the United States, by far.
The Trump administration is currently examining the deal under a process run by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews potential effects on national security. The case is the first major China-related CFIUS review for the Trump administration and Congress is watching closely.
“The question is whether they are going to sweep the security concerns aside because of this friendship,” said Wessel, a Democrat. “This transaction will be one important gauge of that.”
One issue, according to lawmakers, is that MoneyGram is located near some U.S. military bases and is often a means for soldiers to send money home. If the Chinese government were able to track where U.S. soldiers are and even get their personal financial information, that could add to the body of intelligence China keeps on the U.S. military.
“Part of our concern is that they provide services to military men and women and their families,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told me. “And access to that kind of data creates potential for information you do not want others to have.”
Moran’s home state hosts Euronet, the company Ant Financial outbid for MoneyGram, so he has a parochial interest as well. But he is not alone. In March, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), who represents the Dallas district that MoneyGram calls home, and Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to warn about the takeover.
“The proposal merits careful evaluation as it would provide Chinese access to the U.S. financial infrastructure, a move that would pose significant national security risks if completed,” they wrote.
The CFIUS process is mostly performed by professionals from across the government and is housed at the Treasury Department. But there is a political element as well. Ross and Mnuchin are considered principals in the process. And ultimately, the decision to approve or reject any deal rests with Trump himself.
In a hearing last month, Mnuchin declined to comment on the deal specifically but said it very well could go to Trump’s desk.
“To the extent that a transaction comes before CFIUS, that we believe is a threat to national security, we will attempt to mitigate it,” Mnuchin said. “If we can’t, we will — if it’s not withdrawn, send it to the president.”
That very dynamic is what has China experts and security officials worried.
Ant Financial contends that there is no security risk in its planned takeover of MoneyGram. Douglas Feagin, Ant’s head of international operations, told me both sides have taken steps to address any concerns, such as agreeing to keep MoneyGram’s U.S.-based servers and all related data on Americans inside the United States.
There are some Ant investors who have a Chinese government affiliation, but they make up less than 15 percent of Ant’s investor pool, he said. Wessel told me that regardless of who invests in Ant, the risk of Chinese government interference in the firm’s businesses cannot be discounted.
“Even if there is no official relationship, there is no Chinese firm of size that cannot be coerced or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said.
Security concerns aside, if Ma is able to convince the Trump team to help him take over the money-remittance industry worldwide, he — and China — will be one step closer to dominating global e-commerce.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly reported that MoneyGram is the largest financial remittance firm in the United States. It is the second largest. This version has been corrected.