The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How China’s ‘Dr. Charles’ peddles claims of access to U.S. power 

President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Fla. The arrest of a Chinese woman at the club last weekend has been linked to a Chinese influence peddler who calls himself “Dr. Charles.”
President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Fla. The arrest of a Chinese woman at the club last weekend has been linked to a Chinese influence peddler who calls himself “Dr. Charles.” (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

BEIJING — “Dr. Charles” pitches himself as a conduit to American power. His social media pages and the website of his organization — audaciously called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association — are a who’s who of Florida Republicans and glitzy Mar-a-Lago dinners.

He boasts about meeting Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and President Trump’s elder sister Elizabeth in the banquet hall of Mar-a-Lago, “at the invitation” of the Republican National Committee. He’s taken photos at Mar-a-Lago with women in glittery evening gowns or selfies with Trump in the background, giving a speech at his Florida club.

In other brag-book-style photos, he’s posing, in a red silk Chinese-style jacket, in front of “Trump Pence victory” signs at Republican events.

But “Dr. Charles” appears to be neither a doctor nor a Charles. And his organization, with a self-styled imprimatur of the United Nations, similarly appears to be a commercial influence-peddling operation looking for a veneer of respectability.

Dr. Charles, whose real name is Li Weitian, according to bank records, has become a central figure in the Chinese effort to get close to Trump and influential Republicans.

He goes to the president’s Florida country club so regularly that Yujing Zhang — the Chinese woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday — told Secret Service agents that she was there to meet “her Chinese friend Charles.”

In an encounter with a receptionist, Zhang also mentioned a group with a similar name to the U.N. Chinese Friendship Association.

Charles proclaims himself to be the secretary general of the group, which was legally registered in Delaware on June 15, 2011, according to a statement posted on Business Wire in 2012. 

The same statement said that at the end of November that year, Charles met with You Lantian, who was deputy director of the United Front Work Department. This department is an influential unit of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, responsible for coordinating these kinds of influence operations.

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A photo of Charles and You appeared on the front page of the association’s website, which the Miami Herald reported was taken down after the paper ran a story about Charles, whom the paper identified as going by Charles Lee.

Since establishing the association, he appears to have devoted himself to collecting photos with influential people in the United States, often opportunistic selfies when the “celebrity” isn’t even aware of being photographed.

On QQ, a Chinese social media app, he posted photos of himself with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, and his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon.

There’s also a photo that appears to be of Dr. Charles posing with Trump against a blue background. Trump is giving his trademark thumbs-up and Charles is decked out in a gray Mao jacket, but it’s not clear if the photo is genuine.

His QQ profile page shows Charles, arms crossed, on the cover of a magazine called “People of the Century.”

“Charles, who began the UNCFA,” says the magazine cover, which he posted on QQ on March 6. It is not clear if the magazine cover is genuine.

Just last month, he posted an ad for a tour of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he claimed former president Barack Obama would be speaking. “You can participate in a meeting with Obama and other celebrities, take photos with them,” he said, listing the tour dates as June 18 to 25.

Obama’s office said he had no plans to speak at West Point in June.

Earlier, Charles had offered a trip to Omaha in May to “shake hands and take photos” with billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

In August, he paid to have his face beamed onto the Nasdaq billboard in Times Square — and then submitted an article about it to a Chinese publication called “People of China Weekly,” an imitation website made to look like it’s part of the People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party of China.

“At a place known as the crossroad of the world, he [Charles] joined Fortune 500 entrepreneurs at the same global stage in showing the world that how the Chinese people are dedicated to world peace,” the article said. “We will be U.N. peacekeepers and fight for a bigger say in terms of global publicity, on behalf of all Chinese people around the world.”

Read the criminal complaint: United States of America v. Yujing Zhang

Charles has built a business in which potential Chinese clients are encouraged to think he can get them through the same doors.

“We are a part of the United Nations. If you pay money, you can be a member” of his group, he told the Southern Weekend newspaper in January.

The U.N. Chinese Friendship Association, however, is not on any list of nongovernmental organizations with U.N. affiliation.

He said membership would bring opportunities to attend events like those he had posted on his WeChat social media account of himself attending events with George W. Bush and Warren Buffett. “There are loads of opportunities like this,” he bragged.

Basic membership, which costs about $450 a year, comes with a certificate and a bronze medal from his U.N. Chinese Friendship Association. There are tiers of membership, with the vice chairman level — a cool $30,000 — bringing opportunities to attend high-level state visits. 

“The upgraded services means that we arrange schedules more flexibly and assist you in inviting government officials, experts and scholars to be your consultants,” he told the newspaper. “Higher price comes with higher privilege.”

His association literature said the dues were to be paid into a bank account listed as belonging to Beijing Peace and Friendship Business Management Company Ltd., registered under the name of Li Weitian.

In one document still available online, outlining a trip he was offering to the United States in December 2012, Charles said he would take members to U.N. headquarters in New York, where he said former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former president Bill Clinton would be making speeches. The U.N. news site lists Bloomberg and Clinton at a U.N. event in October, but there was no mention of December appearances.

He also offered a trip to the White House and “visiting politicians and Asian leaders” in Washington, and to attend a conference at Harvard where there would be “multiple professors.”

Documents from 2012 list a range of “honorary” associates of the group, including top political and business figures from the United States, Europe and Asia. And documents from last year list several U.S. political players as holding honorary roles with the association.

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Despite all the braggadocio, little is known about the man behind this association.

His LinkedIn page, where his profile photo shows him with Ban Ki-moon in a black bow tie, a sign they met at a function, lists him simply as “Charles” in English and Chinese. It says he is based in the central Beijing district of Chaoyang.

It lists his work history as secretary general of the U.N. Chinese Friendship Association — but provides no dates — and as the CEO of “US Wall Street Capital United Investment Group.”

The Beijing branch of the Wall Street Capital investment company, registered under the name “Heigan McBob,” had its business license revoked in 2012, according to Alibaba company credit records.

For his education, Charles has written “PhD in management from Golden State university” and given the dates as 2008 to 2020, suggesting that he’s still studying. The website for Golden State University shows it is based in southern Los Angeles and offers a master’s degree in Asian medicine. It does not show a doctorate program or any classes in management.

There was no immediate response from the university on the claims.

His only other qualification is from the “United Nations Certification Association.” This association has a website that is only in Chinese and, again, does not appear to be linked to the United Nations.

Washington Post reporters on Wednesday visited the Beijing address listed for the U.N. Chinese Friendship Association but found no such organization. The real estate management company said there was no record of such a tenant.

The Post also sent messages through WeChat to the number listed for Li on multiple pages, including on ads showing a Trump family photo and the caption “invitation to meet Trump at a banquet at Mar-a-Lago.” The account was listed as “Peace Dove,” and when asked if it belonged to Charles, the user sent back a photo of Trump giving a thumbs-up.

The person did not respond to questions about whether they knew Zhang or what she had been trying to do at Mar-a-Lago. Instead, they blocked the reporter from being able to contact him.

Wang Yuan, Lyric Li and Liu Yang in Beijing and Carol Morello, Brian Murphy and Juliet Eilperin in Washington contributed to this report.

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