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The China Syndrome | The Nation

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The China Syndrome

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The FBI at first tried to scare Wen Ho Lee into confessing that he had passed nuclear secrets to China. The Rosenbergs professed their innocence, he was told, and the Rosenbergs are dead. When that did not work, he was put in jail, although the government still had no evidence to convict him as a spy. Five years of relentless hounding by its agents--at times more than 100 FBI personnel were working on his case--had produced nothing. The only wrongdoing he could be charged with, discovered by accident during a search of his office, was his downloading of several weapons codes from the lab's secure computer system onto the unsecured one. Similar security infractions were often ignored at the lab, rarely resulting in disciplinary measures. (In an error of potentially much graver consequences for national security, former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch had downloaded top-secret files onto his unsecured home computer, which a family member had been using to surf pornography websites. Deutch was disciplined but he did not lose his job, much less end up incarcerated.)

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.

Lee was prosecuted under the cold-war-era Atomic Energy Act, which allowed for the harshest treatment: He was put in manacles and shackles that were chained to his waist, and was locked up in solitary confinement. When members of his immediate family were permitted to visit him for one hour each month, they were not allowed to speak in Chinese--the language they spoke at home. Lights in his cell were on twenty-four hours a day, with a guard on constant watch. Such conditions are rarely experienced by even the most vicious convicted criminals.

Much to Wen Ho Lee's credit, he did not crack. The US district court judge in New Mexico who was put in charge of the prosecution was so incensed by the government's handling of the case that he said to Lee: "I believe you were terribly wronged.... [Government officials] have embarrassed our entire nation.... I sincerely apologize to you."

This unusual gesture, with which Wen Ho Lee opens his account of the ordeal in My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, is by the book's end almost certain to draw applause from the readers, as an enlightened conclusion to a grave miscarriage of justice by the government; but the negative consequences of the incident have yet to be fully tallied.

More than 150,000 Chinese-American engineers and scientists work in US industry, government and academia today; roughly 15,000 are employed by the defense sector alone. Because of the way in which the government handled Wen Ho Lee's case, many found that their loyalty was being severely questioned by their bosses and colleagues. They were frequently subject to innuendo and distressing jokes. There were numerous reports of security clearances withdrawn and promotions denied, of people forced into early retirement. A survey conducted by the Committee of 100 and the Anti-Defamation League soon after Wen Ho Lee's release from prison found that 68 percent of Americans feel negative toward Chinese-Americans; 32 percent believe that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China than to the United States; and 46 percent believe that Chinese-Americans passing secrets to China is a problem.

Even Stober and Hoffman, who make every effort to show the lack of credible evidence proving that Lee was a spy, maintain that his own unexplained actions fed into the political furor that made him all too convenient a target. For instance, Lee lied to the FBI, to his family and to his lawyers about why he had copied voluminous amounts of non-work-related computer codes used to design nuclear weapons and put them on portable tapes that have never been completely recovered.

In his own book, Lee explains the copying as a precautionary measure against losing his files--as had happened to him when the lab switched from one computer system to another. He defends the volume of downloads as necessary to test his portion of the codes "against the snapshot of the whole code at a certain time," because as the weapons designers change their calculations, his codes are affected as well. To Lee's scientific mind, the measure was prudent and logical. John Richter, a Los Alamos physicist known as "the guru of gurus" on the subject of plutonium explosives, testified in court in Lee's defense. He described Lee's actions with an old saying: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

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