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The China Syndrome | The Nation

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The China Syndrome

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Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, who covered the story for the San Jose Mercury-News and the Albuquerque Journal, teamed up to write A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage, in which they reveal the scandalous details of the misguided search for the Chinese-American spy. Written like a crime novel, their book is at its best as an exposé of the behind-the-scenes workings of Washington politics, in which the truth is all too easily sacrificed for political expediency. The authors blame everyone involved, from the incompetent employees of the FBI and the ambitious bureaucrats of the Department of Energy (DOE) to the zealous anti-China hawks in Congress and a colluding press corps all too willing to swallow government-distributed information without corroboration.

About the Author

Dusanka Miscevic
Dusanka Miscevic is a writer and historian of China. She is collaborating with Peter Kwong on a book about Chinese-...
Peter Kwong
Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, is co-author of Chinese America: The Untold Story...

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In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, China has undergone a dramatic makeover: from the most outspoken adversary of the United States to a highly appreciated ally. The bitter spy-plane episode is all but forgotten. Relations between the two countries continue to warm, and George W. Bush is scheduled to arrive in China for his first official visit on February 21--the thirtieth anniversary of Nixon's breakthrough visit. Though short (it ends February 22), Bush's visit promises to be long on symbolism and good will. President Jiang Zemin could not have asked for anything more.

At home, however, he is enmeshed in a bitter power struggle leading up to next fall's passing of the baton from the current leadership to the next generation of China's Communist leaders, as mandated by the party's new service-limitation rule. Jiang Zemin is desperate to place his supporters in crucial posts, to insure his continued dominance as an insider, even when out of office. His maneuvering has led to open opposition. The radicals abhor his dictatorial style and lavish personal spending. There are rumors that the bugging of his $120 million Boeing 767, discovered in October, may have been carried out by his opponents in the military. Even the supporters of Zhu Rongji, his liberal ally, are accusing Jiang of arrogance and incompetence. The conservatives accuse him of being qin mei (a "US kisser").

It's true that his government seems suddenly eager to please. In preparation for the summit, it has released several imprisoned scholars with American ties. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen has welcomed members of Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party to China and called for renewed dialogue, in a significant softening of policy undertaken with one eye toward Taiwan, the other toward Washington. Similarly calculated was the pledge of $150 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And Chinese officials have made an effort to clear the United States of involvement in the bugging of Jiang's 767. No wonder a New York Times Op-Ed called Jiang "Our Man in Beijing."

On the other side, official Chinese media now fondly refer to W. as "Little Bush," in deference to his father. Little Bush has granted China permanent most-favored-nation trade status, calling it "a final step in normalizing US-China trade relations." Also, after years of resistance, US officials recently threw their support behind China's bid to host the Olympics in 2008.

So what's wrong with this picture? Hidden behind the new amiable facade are long-term problems--China's rapid economic growth and increasing political influence in Asia have placed it on a collision course with the United States, inspiring nationalistic posturing and encouraging military spending in both countries. Witness the US missile defense plan, aimed at limiting China's threat to Taiwan, and China's accelerated arms development program and massive purchase of Russian weapons in recent years. On the economic front, Chinese imports are creating a huge trade deficit for the United States--its largest with any trading partner, including Japan.

Meanwhile, things are far from well in China [see Jiang Xueqin, "Letter From China," page 23]. Its current leadership can hardly keep the lid on the boiling caldron of contradictions between the growing primitive capitalism and the rule of the Communist Party. An estimated 170 million people in China are currently unemployed or semi-employed, and millions more are expected to be added to the rolls as a result of China's joining the World Trade Organization, which will have a devastating impact on its agriculture. The corruption of the business and political elite has made the polarization between rich and poor more extreme than at any time since the establishment of the People's Republic. The malcontents are turning violent. Between November 25 and December 15, 2001, China was rocked by twenty-eight deliberate explosions and several assassinations of party officials, which prompted top national leaders to convene three consecutive meetings in Beijing. Targets of China's internal "terrorist" attacks include factories, housing facilities, train depots and police stations across the country.

Given these circumstances, it seems wise for Bush to steer clear of commitment to the troubled lame-duck Chinese leadership. He will be tempted to enjoy the photo-ops and allow Chinese leaders to get away with suppressing minority rights in China's border regions by invoking the goals of the new alliance against terrorism--especially in the Muslim province of Xinjiang. But if China is to become a stable and reliable long-term ally in the region, Americans will have to quit their cowboy swaggering, which has recently triggered strong anti-American sentiment among the Chinese, and use the lull in mutual antagonism to see to it that US corporate interests do not ignore labor and human rights abuses. Otherwise, there will be much more unrest to come.

Also by the Author

The Communist Party is failing to heed demands for political reform.

It’s taking place amid deep intraparty divisions and growing public anger over corruption.

The government spent four years and millions of dollars to pin Wen Ho Lee, ultimately only to find him innocent of spying. Many American weapons designers who were familiar with the Chinese nuclear program saw no reason that Chinese scientists could not invent in the 1990s the miniaturized warheads US scientists had developed in the 1950s. Others pointed out that most of the details on US missiles were available on a website maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. China could have easily made its own bombs by processing the mounds of information gathered from newspapers, magazines and scientific literature that Chinese students and scientists, over more than a decade of scholarly and business exchanges, had obtained legally--a method US counterintelligence circles refer to as gathering grains of sand. Yet the director of counterintelligence at the DOE, Notra Trulock, refused to believe that the Chinese were capable of developing the most modern weapon in the US arsenal on their own. "There's one spy out there and we're going to find him," he reportedly told an assistant.

The spy, if there was one, could have been any of the scientists from a half-dozen national nuclear-weapons-design labs, or an employee of one of the many plants that manufacture the parts, as they all had blueprints. Yet Trulock's order for an administrative inquiry stipulated that the initial consideration would be to identify those US citizens of Chinese heritage who worked directly or peripherally with the design development. This was a logical starting point, the attached memo went on to explain, based upon the intelligence community's evaluation that the PRC targets and utilizes ethnic Chinese for espionage rather than persons of non-Chinese origin. Following this perilous logic, the investigation took on the shape of a funnel: The list of suspects swiftly shrank from the employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore research labs who had traveled to China to the scientists of Chinese heritage who had worked directly or peripherally on the W-88 design development and had had contacts with Chinese scientists. From there, it was a quick jump to Wen Ho Lee as the only person who had the opportunity, motivation and legitimate access to the specific nuclear weapons information believed to have been leaked to the Chinese.

The choice of Wen Ho Lee as the spy was far from logical. He was a native of Taiwan and had openly expressed his sympathy for Taiwanese independence, and has in fact admitted to providing unclassified scientific documents to the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology--Taiwan's military research center involved in developing nuclear weapons. Also, he had been trapped into cooperating with the FBI many years earlier in an investigation of another Chinese-American scientist, while his wife was recruited to act as an unpaid informant on the activities of visiting Chinese scientists.

This may explain why no one at the FBI or any other government agency initially believed Trulock's accusations against Lee. Trulock's first request for a wiretapping order from the Justice Department was turned down. But he doggedly took his spy story to the CIA, the White House and the Defense Department until he finally found a sympathetic ear among Republicans in Congress. Representative Christopher Cox of California was heading the House Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns, which was investigating the Clinton Administration for jeopardizing national security by being soft on China in exchange for campaign contributions. Cox immediately saw the potential of using an indictment against Wen Ho Lee to help the charges against Clinton stick. Trulock's unverified assertions became bombshells in Cox's committee report. On one occasion a zealous committee member even confused the scientist Wen Ho Lee with Bill Lann Lee, who was at the time waiting to be confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.

But the real damage was done when someone leaked the spy story to the ever-hungry-for-a-Clinton-scandal press. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times passed the information along without corroboration, and soon Congress and the media were "locked in a game of one-upmanship," describing Lee's crime in ever more superlative-laden rhetoric, according to Stober and Hoffman. In no time, expressions of fear and hatred of the Chinese inundated the Internet, TV and radio talk shows. As the storm gathered, Clinton's appointees, instead of standing up against wrongful accusations, buckled. The new Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, weighing the risk of losing his nomination as the running mate to presidential candidate Al Gore, ordered that Wen Ho Lee be summarily dealt with.

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