Why is Beijing not bugged by bugs?

2002-01-22Asia Times

BEIJING - Why? And why now? These appear to be the crucial questions after the bugging of the Chinese presidential airplane made headlines around the world. The link with next month's summit between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and US President George W Bush is apparent, but it is not clear what the purpose may be.

Certainly, the Chinese officials who leaked the story didn't want to derail the summit. If they had wished to do so, they would have simply placed it on the front pages of their newspapers, and popular outrage would have gained momentum by the day.

The fact that the story was fed only to foreign newspapers indicates that the Chinese wished to contain it. Yet they leaked it nevertheless, instead of keeping it under wraps, as would have been possible.

Here is a detail that may be pertinent to these questions. The bugged plane was delivered earlier last year, and, according to officials, underwent a test flight in September. That was when the whining bugs were detected. We don't know whether the discovery took place before or after the September 11 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon, but certainly the fact that the Chinese didn't say a word about it reveals Beijing's wish to warm up its relations with Washington. On September 11, the US woke up to the threat of terrorism and its perception of China took a U-turn. Beijing was suddenly no longer potential enemy number one.

At the time, the Chinese leadership had a choice: either blow up the story and refocus United States attention on the theory of the Chinese threat, or conceal it while fostering a new relationship in the new, friendlier climate.

In the months following September 11, China went out of its way to try to please the US in the realm of geopolitics. During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, China helped to canvass for the US position against terrorism, even with reluctant countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. It helped smooth the way for the US with its traditional ally, Pakistan, and provided the US with information on Afghanistan and the Taliban that American sources say was far better than that passed on by Russia. In return, Beijing received a softening of the US position on Taiwan and a more conciliatory attitude toward what Beijing calls the internal terrorism of "Eastern Turkestan", ie western Xinjiang province.

The upcoming Sino-US summit in February could have topped all these positive developments, confirming a reconciliation that Beijing has been wishing for years. The conditions for this scenario were right, with the terrorist threat looming much larger in American eyes than the receding perception that China was a threat.

Yet in the past weeks, two American books have reminded the US public of the lingering Chinese threat theory. One, A Convenient Spy by Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, is a detailed investigation into the alleged theft of nuclear secrets from US laboratories by Chinese spies some six years ago. The other, Seeds of Fire by Gordon Thomas, is more pulp fiction and accuses the Chinese of helping Osama bin Laden mount the September 11 attacks.

Such books have also reminded the Chinese that despite the reality of the terrorist threat, the US fear of Chinese unpredictability is not dead, and will linger for a long time. In this situation, the bugged plane provided Beijing with a golden opportunity to talk directly to the US public, explaining to them that "someone" apparently wanted to spy on the Chinese president in his own bed, and even in his lavatory.

The Chinese have not pointed fingers at the US, and neither have they fed the story to their own public. Their revelation now thus seems to be a warning salvo, saying roughly to the US: "We are ready to restart the mud-flinging contest, but we'd like to put it aside and start doing business again like we did once upon a time."

The Chinese government is in fact politically less concerned about espionage than the US, although Chinese police are far more prickly on the issue than their US counterparts. In a way, espionage is a fact of life for Beijing, and not an issue on which to base bilateral relations. Even the April 1, 2001 incident, in which a US military plane landed in China, was revealed by the Americans, while the Chinese wished to resolve the matter out of the public eye.

The management of the bugging story could thus be a success for the new Chinese public relations managers, showing them able to send an irritant message and yet contain it. The problem is that, unlike China, in America not all the cards are in the hand of the government. While the US administration would like to put on the backburner issues like US-Chinese spying, these are brought up by an American press that feeds on popular sensitivity to them. However, the US administration can play an important role by playing down such stories. In the past, similar spy stories involving France, Israel, and even post-Soviet Russia, have all faded away in a matter of days, while Chinese spy stories have lingered on, disrupting the bilateral atmosphere.

It appears that China is pleading with the US to "Kindly avoid doing this again." Thus the bugging story could be one of love rather than hate, a plea to cast aside this unfortunate twist and move on with the business of improving relations.

Confirmation of this approach can be seen in the release of a high-ranking Tibetan at the same time that the bugging story was issued. Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan ethnomusicologist arrested in Shigatse, Tibet, in September 1995, was issued medical parole by Chinese authorities after serving more than six years of an 18-year sentence on charges of espionage. (2002-01-22 Asia Times)


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