According to Press Release 17-103, Alaska’s First Lady Donna Walker, and her daughter and daughter-in-law have successfully returned from a junket to China, paid for entirely by the Chinese government.
Staffing them was a member of the governor’s staff, and likely two members of the governor’s security team, as they usually are on such trips.
A business class ticket to Beijing averages about $5,000, according to Orbitz, and in-country travel to the provinces of Heilongjiang and Shaanxi would have added additional costs.
“All travel, lodging and related expenses were paid by the government hosts,” reads the press release from Grace Jang, the governor’s communications director, who made an effort to be transparent about the Chinese-funded trip.
Mrs. Walker, Lindsay Walker Hobson, and Sabrina Smith Walker were invited speakers at the Women and Children Cultural Exchange Conference hosted by the Heilongjiang Women’s Federation and Heilongjiang People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, held on June 21.
An earlier press release included daughter Tessa Walker Linderman on the trip, but it’s unclear if she was part of the actual party. The latest press release makes no mention of her.
The women visited a vocational school, two kindergartens, an afterschool/weekend academy, a women’s arts and crafts vocational development center, the national offices of the All-China Women’s Federation, several historical sites, museums, and cultural programs.
It was part vacation, part cultural exchange, and also part State business. Most curious is that Mrs. Walker held official state business meetings with “a number of high ranking government officials, including Heilongjiang Governor Lu, who hosted meetings and banquets for the delegation.” Lu is a former First Secretary of the Communist Youth League, one of the most powerful political organizations in the nation. First Secretary is the top officer of the organization, and Lu held the job from 2008-2013.
Mrs. Walker was holding talks with someone who can make things happen in China.
“Recurring topics of discussion included increasing tourism between China and Alaska with direct flights, educational and cultural exchange opportunities, potential Alaska LNG shipments to China, Alaska seafood trade, and recent developments in China/U.S. trade,” according to the release.
The First Lady (or First Dude) of Alaska has traditionally held a more ceremonial role and usually stays out of politics. First ladies sometimes choose a topic to highlight — such as literacy, human trafficking, domestic violence, or another social concern.
It is unusual for a First Lady to conduct official business for the State. Even more unusual is for the State, looking for specific investment from the Chinese government, to accept a gift trip that would have run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
The trip was completed just as the U.S. State Department downgraded China into the worst category for human trafficking, Tier 3, which indicates the communist country has a serious problem with slavery and is making no efforts to curtail it. Russia and Iran are also Tier 3 countries, as are several on the African continent, according to the report released just a few days ago.
China is Alaska’s largest trading partner, and Gov. Bill Walker has been courting Chinese investors for his go-it-alone gasline. The president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, Keith Meyers, was in China in May, touting Alaska’s gas and working to change the perception that U.S. trade barriers would prevent the Chinese from entering into American liquified natural gas projects.
Meyer, upon returning from China, said he also met with high-ranking Chinese officials. He spoke at the China LNG and Gas International Summit.
Meyer said that Chinese companies, looking to meet their country’s growing demand for gas, had previously felt that U.S. barriers prevented them from participating in American liquefied natural gas projects.
The state-owned corporation that has come under the close control of Gov. Walker is seeking Asian gas buyers to sign long-term contracts, but the project also needs major investors now that ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips left the project last year. That might be where the Chinese fit in, at least in Gov. Walker’s mind.
In April, Walker met with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he stopped in Anchorage on his flight home after meeting with President Donald Trump. Walker talked at length with Xi Jinping about the Alaska LNG project, which has only enough money to make it until the end of this calendar year.
The appearance of an ethical breach is in the eye of the beholder. Mrs. Walker does not have the authority to incur any obligations on behalf of the state, but she does have unique and powerful influence over the governor. And she did conduct policy discussions on behalf of the State.
Would Alaskans be comfortable if Gov. Walker, rather than his wife and daughters, accepted an all-expense-paid trip from the Chinese government and held LNG talks?