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Society & Culture

US Paranoia on Spying and Tech Theft

Jun 20, 2019
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

Accusations have run rife lately in the United States that Chinese scientists and students have been stealing high-tech secrets during their stay in the country — hence greater US restrictions to prevent Chinese citizens from carrying out normal exchanges with their American counterparts.

These accusations are hardly convincing, and are totally unsupported by the facts. Nor are they new. Politically-motivated allegations of Chinese spying on American technology were common during the 1990s, as I witnessed as a Chinese journalist based in Washington.

On May 25, 1999, the United States issued the 872-page “Cox Report” submitted by a team headed by Republican Congressman Christopher Cox, chairman of the House Policy Committee, accusing China of stealing large amounts of classified information from a US nuclear weapons laboratory including data on seven types of nuclear warheads and high-calibre computer technologies. The report suggested that China was using the “stolen” technologies to develop its own land-based mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ICBMs. But the report was awash with such phrases as “seem,” “possibly,” “probably,” and “likely in the future,” without facts to back them up.

There was media conjecture at the time that Congress chose to publish the report on that date for two purposes. One was to divert public attention. On May 7 that year, US warplanes launched a precision-guided bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese journalists and wounding dozens of embassy staff members.

The attack triggered world-wide denunciation. The publication of the Cox Report was obviously aimed at diverting the world’s attention. The second purpose was an effort by Congressional Republicans to undermine the Clinton administration’s policy of overall engagement with China.

The “technology theft” theory was met with widespread doubt and criticism. China said the report was wrong, as it underestimated both China’s ability to develop its own military technologies and America’s ability to guard its secrets. Both are true. It’s hardly believable that one or two persons could bypass all surveillance to steal such top-level, highly classified secrets from the laboratory in question — unless its staff members were all Chinese spies.

Shortly before the Cox Report, there was the so-called “Wen Ho Lee spy case,” to help create an atmosphere to substantiate the accusation of China stealing US technologies. A Taiwan-born Chinese-American physicist, Wen Ho Lee, was working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which researched on nuclear weapons. He was arrested in December 1999 on charges of stealing secrets about the US nuclear arsenal for China. Later the US government reached a deal with Lee, changing the charge to “handling internal information in improper way” while dropping all the other 58 charges and releasing him. Lee was obviously a victim of an unjust case that the US government created in an attempt to justify its allegation that China was “stealing American technologies.”

In May of the same year, the US created another case with the same intention.

On May 22, Xinhua News Agency’s Washington bureau signed a contract with an estate dealer to buy a 7-story apartment building in a DC suburb. The staff, joyfully awaiting their move into the new premises where they anticipated much better working and living conditions, didn’t expect that a scheme was underway secretly to thwart the purchase.

On May 21, the Washington Times carried a lengthy report on its front page entitled, “Xinhua bureau’s new building overlooks Pentagon.” Over the following two days, the paper continued publishing front page stories alleging that Xinhua’s purchase of the building was “illegal” and that the Chinese news agency’s journalists had engaged in “espionage collection of information.”

The WT report alleged that from the building, on a height near the I-395 highway, Xinhua could see activities in the Pentagon compound and, on a fine day, could overhear talking inside its offices by deciphering the vibrations of the window panes through a long range microphone. The report even warned that Chinese espionage personnel could use microwaves to jam Pentagon’s telecommunications from a commanding point on the Xinhua building in the case of a PLA missile attack on Taiwan.

Meanwhile, some anti-Chinese figures also spread the rumor that Xinhua correspondents were candidates for Beijing’s espionage efforts. The US State Department said that Xinhua is a liaison agency of the Chinese government and thus is subject to the Regulations on Foreign Missions. Therefore, it said, Xinhua should apply to the State Council before the purchase of the building and the State Council would decide within 60 days whether approving or negating the purchase. In fact, Xinhua is a commercially registered company, which does not need US government approval at all.

I interviewed the head of the Xinhua Washington bureau afterwards. He told me all the allegations were “sheer nonsense.” “Everybody in our bureau feels frustrated,” he said. “It’s really ridiculous. We worked hard every day writing news reports to promote mutual understanding between Chinese and American people but ended up being labeled a ‘spy.’”

The same thing happened to me and my colleagues at the Washington Bureau of the People’s Daily. It was the second day after I arrived in the US capital. All the telephones in our offices suddenly failed to work. We called the phone company and they sent in two workmen, who inspected everywhere with tools.

The following day, three police vehicles came and stayed, occasionally driving around our building in a seemingly menacing manner. I picked up a phone and said loudly such sarcastic words as “you’re monitoring the wrong persons” and “that’s unprofessional.” Twenty days later this apparent monitoring disappeared without giving any explanation.

An old Chinese saying states that “a suspicious man always has delusions of being haunted by ghosts.” Some Americans are such people. In their eyes, every Chinese studying or doing exchange in the US harbors a dubious intention. I have been a professional journalist for more than 30 years and visited more than 50 countries. My status and career are transparent enough but Americans still suspected me and gave me an unfriendly warning the second day I was stationed in the US.

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