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The China Syndrome | The Nation

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The China Syndrome

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Whatever the case, Lee comes across as impossibly naïve as he recounts the events of late 1998, considering that he was in the very eye of the storm raised by the Cox investigation. He continued to cooperate with investigators by submitting to polygraph tests and repeated FBI questioning, without the presence of a lawyer. When his daughter told him that a New York Times article headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say," published March 6, 1999, was about him, he didn't believe it. He didn't read newspapers, didn't vote and professed not to care about politics. Yet his book is politically sophisticated. It shows the unmistakable imprint of his co-author, Helen Zia, an experienced freelance journalist and a seasoned and respected Asian-American activist, who understood the significance of Wen Ho Lee's case in the context of American ethnic and civil rights politics.

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.

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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.

In contrast to the position taken by Stober and Hoffman, who credit Lee's lawyers as being the only morally noncorrupt heroes of this story, Zia recognized that the legal case gained moral weight and credibility through the support of brave people who were willing to risk their careers to speak out in Lee's favor. The American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued statements condemning the government's harsh treatment of Lee. A number of eminent scientists, among them several of Lee's colleagues, individually took the stand. Richter, the guru, provided crucial testimony debunking the government's nonsense that Lee had stolen the nation's "crown jewels," thus altering the balance of power in the world.

The Chinese-American community, still licking the wounds inflicted by Clinton's campaign fundraising scandal, was initially cautious in dealing with the sensitive issue surrounding nuclear secrets. But it picked up Lee's cause as soon as the government went public with its outrageous actions. Foreign-born Chinese-American scientists and engineers, who for years had sweated away quietly in research labs and universities, unrecognized, unappreciated and underpaid, but who were suddenly all suspect, turned their anger into building the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal bills. Supporters established websites and organized rallies and teach-ins around the country, demanding that members of Congress stop the persecution of Lee. When Professor Ling-chi Wang, director of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, called for a collective boycott of DOE-overseen national labs by all Asian-American scientists and engineers, the labs took notice. (An agreement with the labs on new procedures appeared imminent at press time.)

Job applications by foreign graduate students, from among whom most research labs and engineering firms recruit their future staff, are down. The National Science Board estimates that 30-50 percent of those who hold science or engineering doctorates in the United States are foreign-born (the number is the highest in math: 57 percent). About 7 percent of all physicists and 15 percent of all engineers in the United States are Asian-American. If Asian-American and other foreign-born scientists are discouraged from entering the US work force, notes Eamon Kelly, chairman of the National Science Board, the country could have a hard time filling the gap.

Yet, spurred by the September 11 attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for a moratorium on admissions of foreign students to US educational institutions. American national interests can ill afford this type of mindless antiforeign hysteria. American high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, according to studies on schooling worldwide. The country's best and brightest students often opt for careers as lawyers, doctors and financial professionals, where they can command much higher salaries than in the pure science fields. Wen Ho Lee, for instance, despite holding a PhD from an American university and with twenty years of experience at the Los Alamos labs, made only $80,000 a year--an absurdly meager remuneration for a man accused of changing the balance of power in the world.

If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the pre-eminent position of the United States in the world--"our scientific capabilities and national security," in the words of the president of the American Physical Society, James Langer--was in fact compromised by the government's action in the case of Wen Ho Lee and the resulting alienation of the most qualified foreign-born scientists necessary to maintain that pre-eminence. Unfortunately, the lesson is also, as Wen Ho Lee found out, that an immigrant dream--coming to America, working hard, getting an education, taking care of one's family and minding one's own business--can easily be shattered by politics. Only by becoming politically engaged and organized can immigrants gain the respect of the rest of the American people and stop being singled out as easy victims.

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