Trump Looms as Kushner Companies Courts Investors in China

2017-05-08 00:35:02

 

Trump Looms as Kushner Companies Courts Investors in China

SHANGHAI — Like many American firms that come to China looking for money, Kushner Companies tried to woo a Shanghai audience with promises of big returns and a path toward living in the United States.

But for Bi Ting, who attended the Kushner event on Sunday, part of the appeal was political: Jared Kushner is the son-in-law of — and a powerful adviser to — President Trump. Virtually unknown in China just months ago, he is now recognized here as a deeply influential figure in American politics.

“The Trump relationship is an extra point for me,” Ms. Bi said, adding that she and her husband had not decided whether to invest.

Kushner Companies’ China roadshow, promoting $500,000 investments in New Jersey real estate as the path to a residency card in the United States, moved to Shanghai on Sunday after a similar pitch on Saturday in Beijing. Security was tighter in Shanghai than it had been in Beijing, where reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post briefly attended the event before being kicked out.

At the event in Beijing, Mr. Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, cited her brother’s service to the company, which he led as chief executive until January. She said the project in Jersey City “means a lot to me and my entire family.”

Mr. Kushner has said he has stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the family business. But government ethics filings show that he and Ivanka Trump, his wife and the president’s daughter, continue to benefit from their stake in Kushner Companies’ real estate business and other investments, which is worth as much as $600 million.

The Shanghai event, at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel, was patrolled by burly security guards who screened those in attendance and kept journalists outside, in an elevator lobby. The organizers had refused on Saturday to allow late registration as word spread of the Beijing event. One guard at the Shanghai event was heard saying that at least some of the participants would be leaving through a private back exit.

But some who attended described an investor pitch similar to the one in Beijing, and Mr. Trump’s political power was palpable at the Shanghai event even if his name went unsaid. As on Saturday in Beijing, one slide that was presented to the Shanghai audience, describing who will decide the future of the visa program for foreign investors, included a photograph of Mr. Trump, as shown by a snapshot taken by an audience member.

Kushner Companies’ marketing push comes as Mr. Kushner is emerging as a crucial voice on China relations, brokering meetings between his father-in-law and top Chinese government officials.

While the Trump connection piqued the interest of many people in attendance, such events soliciting investors for projects in the United States are not unusual in China. The so-called EB-5 visa program awards foreign investors the right to live in the United States for two years and a path to permanent residency, in exchange for investments of at least $500,000 in American development projects. A bright red line near the top of the posters in the Four Seasons lobby prominently mentioned EB-5 visas.

About three-quarters of the roughly 10,000 investor visas issued last year went to Chinese nationals.

Although the program was created as a way to finance projects in economically troubled neighborhoods, it has instead turned into a form of cheap financing for luxury real estate developers. Applicants are primarily seeking the visa, so they typically do not seek a significant return on their investment.

The United States Government Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress, has criticized the visa program for its lax safeguards against illicit sources of money.

Kushner Companies has tapped the program before: The firm raised about $50 million from Chinese investors in EB-5 funding for another project in Jersey City, a Trump-branded luxury apartment tower that opened in late 2016.

As part of the marketing effort to finance that building, a firm used by Kushner Companies distributed a Chinese-subtitled video leading viewers behind the wheel of a car in New Jersey accompanied by “Woke Up This Morning,” the theme song from the television show “The Sopranos.”

Kushner Companies has declined to identify the investors it found for that building.

Mr. Kushner was a manager or president at several entities associated with the Jersey City project that is now seeking Chinese investors. He divested his interests in that project by selling them to a family trust of which he is not a beneficiary, said Blake Roberts, a lawyer at WilmerHale who is advising Mr. Kushner on ethics issues.

Mr. Kushner has divested his stakes in dozens of entities used to hold family company investments, although he remains the beneficiary of trusts that hold stakes in hundreds of others.

“Ms. Meyer wanted to make clear that her brother had stepped away from the company in January and has nothing to do with this project,” said Risa Heller, a Kushner Companies spokeswoman. “Kushner Companies apologizes if that mention of her brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors. That was not Ms. Meyer’s intention.”

Many in China start looking for overseas residency and passports after they have children. They fear the effects of smog on their children’s lungs — the smog was heavy in Shanghai on Sunday, and an internationally comparable index of air quality showed that the pollution was seven times the level in New York.

Many families also consider overseas schools to be preferable to those in China, where ferocious academic competition keeps children doing homework until late at night even in elementary school, in preparation for a national college entrance exam that can be the difference between riches and ruin.

Ms. Bi, who is 34 and is expecting her first child, said, “I want my child to live in a relatively relaxed environment where he or she could be himself or herself and lead a diverse life, instead of having no choice but to take the college entrance exam in China.”

Still, she said, investing in the Kushner project would not give her and her husband enough time to get to the United States before her baby was born.

Many people in China worry that the window for obtaining an EB-5 visa may be closing. Although Mr. Trump has softened his language considerably in recent weeks, he was a vociferous critic of China during his presidential campaign. He has said he will take a tough line on immigration, although he did not take aim at investors in real estate projects.

The Kushner project promoted to Chinese investors, called Kushner 1, includes two towers and nearly 1,500 luxury apartments, with construction to begin early next year.

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