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Engaging China

Print edition : Oct 14, 2000 T+T-

In the Wen Ho Lee scandal, the United States yet again plays out its peculiar relationship of "containment" and "engagement" with China, without being too confrontational.

ON March 6, 1999, The New York Times published an article on he front page with a sensational headline, 'Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report: China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say'. A few days later, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interrogated a 59-year-old Chinese American nuclear scientist, Dr. Wen Ho Lee. Without an attorney present, the agents asked Lee if he was a Chinese spy. Pleading innocence, Lee put his faith in God: "I depend on him." With pressu re from Washington D.C. after the media leak, the FBI agents showed little compassion for this veteran scientist. "The Rosenbergs professed their innocence. They were not concerned either. The Rosenbergs are dead," said one agent in reference to Ethel an d Julius Rosenberg, two left-wing activists charged in 1950 with espionage at the Manhattan Project (Los Alamos) and executed by the state on June 19, 1953. When Lee dithered, the agents showed him the March 6 story and said: "It all but says your name i n here. Pretty soon you're going to have reporters knocking on your door. They are going to be knocking on the door of your friends."

On September 26, 2000, the FBI and United States Attorney-General Janet Reno sat before the lawmakers and offered their justification for the campaign against Wen Ho Lee. Lee had been charged in December 1999 with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets . He was denied bail and shackled in his cell. Nine months later, on September 13, 2000, the government released Lee after he pleaded guilty to one relatively minor count of misuse of the data in his possession. Attorney-General Janet Reno carefully admi tted that the government had made some errors in its investigation, but she pointedly noted that "Dr. Lee is no hero. He is not an absent-minded professor. He is a felon. He committed a very serious calculated crime, and he pleaded guilty to it." The New York Times, which hastened the case through its March 6 story, apologised to its readers for rushing to judgment, but it too held on to the theory that Lee had broken the rules.

But is this a story about a scientist who either broke procedural rules or spied for his ancestral land, or is it part of the enduring story of China's place in the political world of the U.S.? There is the story of John Deutsch, a former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who downloaded secret files to his home computer and broke the same rules to which Lee was held accountable. If this is a story of classified information, why was Deutsch not charged with crime? Several years ago, a U.S . government official, Jonathan Pollard, was found guilty of espionage on behalf of Israel. Pollard, a Jew, is currently in jail, and he finds support from the government of Israel, Hillary Clinton, and others, who ask that he be freed because he spied f or an ally, not an enemy. Lee claims not to have spied for anyone, but few mainstream politicians took his brief. The Wen Ho Lee case, then, is not strictly about secrecy, but it is mainly about the U.S's peculiar relationship with China.

Each year the U.S. legislature revisits discussion on its relationship with China. The format for this discussion is the ratification of the Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) status, which is automatic for most countries except China. In 1980, Congress passed t he Jackson-Vanik Act, which prevents regular re-authorisation of trade privileges owing to emigration restrictions from China. But with U.S.-China trade now over $60 billion a year, there is an enormous incentive to its passage. To ensure that the MFN st atus is not altered, lobbyists for major U.S. multinational firms camp out in Washington and donate over $20 million to the Republicans and the Democrats. The Business Coalition for U.S.-China trade consists of more than 800 members, including trade asso ciations (the Business Roundtable, the National Association for Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce) and large firms (Boeing, IBM, Motorola, Ford, General Motors, ConAgra, Nike and Eastman Chemical). U.S. business has now come to rely upon the lowe r labour costs in China as well as upon China's vast purchase of high-technology goods. In the 1990s, for instance, Boeing sold one in 10 of its planes to the Chinese.

JUST as China has become indispensable for U.S. multinationals, the U.S. politicians have used "China" as a weapon to strengthen their own dubious populist credentials. The right-wing, represented by most of the Republican Party and by the fringe element s of the Reform Party (led by Patrick Buchanan), is joined by the Green Party (whose presidential candidate this year is consumer advocate Ralph Nader) and a section of the labour movement, in its denunciation of China. Not only is China accused of steal ing jobs on the strength of its low wages, but is censured for human rights abuses. Not only the Democratic Party (under Bill Clinton and Al Gore), but also sections of the Republican Party (under George W. Bush), cannot turn their backs on Chinese marke ts and labour. Politicians of the neo-liberal variety are vulnerable to the charge of being hypocritical on human rights and unconcerned about the woes of the U.S. worker. Because of this bind, the neo-liberals seek symbolic ways to attack China just as they want to continue to do business with China.

In the late 1940s, the U.S. right-wing fashioned the theory of "containment" to encircle the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its allies as well as to isolate them economically. Since China is essential to the survival of multinationals, th e policy of containment has run its course. For this reason, Clinton offered the strategy of "engagement", to deal with what the U.S. considers to be a totalitarian nation, and try to cajole concessions towards what it considers to be democracy. But the Clinton administration does not apply this principle to Iraq and Cuba; so it appears that the policy is designed for China. To "engage" China, the neo-liberals in the U.S. government find certain superficial ways to "challenge" it without being too confr ontational. The U.S. government's manipulation of the Dalai Lama (and the so-called Free Tibet movement) is a case in point, but equal to the task has been the Wen Ho Lee scandal.

The Wen Ho Lee story was leaked to The New York Times through the offices of Republican Representative Christopher Cox of California. Cox' 900-page report claimed that the Chinese government had stolen missile technology from the U.S., but it did not offer any credible evidence. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said that the report read like "a tale from the Arabian Nights" and that the U.S. charges underestimated the security at Los Alamos and the ability of Chinese scientists. Stephen Schwartz, edito r of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, noted that much of the information on nuclear weaponry was publicly available and that while the W-88 warhead was fairly sophisticated, its design was not beyond the capacity of Chinese scientists. The C IA acknowledged that if Lee did not transfer the information, the Chinese could have got it through the Russians or by "the ingenuity of the Chinese scientists."

When the inquiry went nowhere, Cox leaked information to Jeff Gerth and James Risen, well-known for their relentless pursuit of scandals in the Clinton White House (both the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater cases), who wrote the March 9 story. Eric Boehler t of Salon.Com notes that these reporters found their way from the Cox leaks to Notra Turlock, a Department of Energy investigator who had been carrying on a crusade against Lee since 1996. When it became clear that China had the W-88 warhead, Turlock ac cused Lee of espionage, mainly because Lee was the only one in the Los Alamos laboratory to have visited China. Li Deuyan of the Institute of Applied Physical and Computational Mathematics in Beijing said that Lee had visited the country to attend an int ernational physics symposium in the late 1980s. He delivered a paper on "basic science, (which had) nothing to do with secrets." On an NBC television show on March 2, 1999, Turlock said, "I think the potential (of the Lee case) is on a magnitude equal to the Rosenberg-Fuchs compromise of the Manhattan Project information."

Of course China already had nuclear weapons (since 1964), but most of its weaponry is only short-range. Its 20 warheads can reach the U.S., as opposed to the 6,000 to 7,000 U.S. warheads that can decimate China. The issue then is not about security, but about what has come to be called "China bashing". In the mid-1990s, the right-wing accused the Democratic Party of taking money from the Chinese government, and from Chinese-American fund-raisers to run its election campaign. Clinton and Gore went on the defensive and asked the Democratic National Committee to return the funds given by anyone "with an Asian name".Two Asian Americans, John Huang and Charlie Yah-lin Trie, accumulated $4.5 million for the 1996 elections out of a total of $2.2 billion raise d and spent in that campaign. Bob Woodward, in a February 1996 exclusive for The Washington Post, offered the sensational argument that Huang and Trie were "Red Chinese" spies. A brief investigation by a right-wing congressional committee led by S enator Fred Thompson found nothing, and the case had to be dropped. A year later, the right-wing accused Al Gore of being on the Chinese payroll via Buddhist monks in California. Sensitive to the issue, the Gore-Clinton camp capitulated over the Wen Ho L ee case.

That the story is really about symbolism is made clear by the role of Cox. Business Week in its March 29, 1999 issue reported that Cox did not oppose trade with China. "Cox fears that tighter controls will crimp U.S. exports without doing much for national security." Not only was Cox averse to challenging the multinationals, but he felt that "the lion's share of stuff (trade regulations) should be fast-tracked (enabled without extensive congressional debate)." On September 19, the Senate approved a Bill that enabled the country to avoid its annual review of China's human rights record, and to tie human rights to trade.

Clinton's theory of engagement is now established policy, and it looks unlikely that the U.S. will be able to wean its economy away from its Chinese motor. Given this, Chinese Americans (like Lee) will perhaps face more such symbolic protests like the ca mpaign finance scandal or the Los Alamos case. Constrained lawmakers will have to show their mettle and independence by making a ruckus. The Wen Ho Lee case has prepared Chinese Americans to this role, and many are poised for further confrontations.

Vijay Prashad, is Director, International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut and author of Karma of Brown Folk.