The near-comic conclusion of the Wen Ho Lee case splattered more than enough egg to cover the faces of much of Washington. It's a media story, a federal law enforcement story, a civil liberties story, perhaps even a discrimination story. But more than anything else, the Lee case and its awkward denouement are, or should be, a political story.
The right has attacked the settlement of the case as another Clinton-era cover-up. More dispassionate observers have viewed the prosecution as emblematic of a rogue FBI, out of the control of its nominal supervisors at a politically anxious Department of Justice. But in a deeper sense, the Lee case was the product of a long-standing campaign to vilify China as an ominous threat to America's values and national security.
Since the early 1990s, a brewing paranoia about China has been building on the right. In part this was transparently partisan and political. The end of the Cold War deprived Republicans of a cudgel they had long used to pillory Democrats and unify their own ranks. With a Democrat in the White House, China--communist China, remember--provided a ready tool Republicans could use to revive some of the beneficial politics of Cold War confrontation.
But whatever cynical political purposes Sinophobia served for partisan Republicans, there was plenty of genuine feeling to work with. China has always had a negative ideological and emotional resonance on the right, and perhaps it was bound to resurface with the end of the Cold War. The Red Scare of the early 1950s was intensified by the fall of China. And the accusations of communist sympathy focused on State Department China hands. China had a mix of attributes that stoked all the passions of the American right: It was racially alien, it was communist, and missionary Christianity there seemed terribly embattled. Something similar happened during the early 1990s. The rising power and prestige of the religious right within the Republican Party created a receptive audience for anti-Chinese rhetoric. And the neo-Cold Warriors' suspicions about China dovetailed nicely with the religious right's concerns about the persecution of Christians and the official atheism of the Chinese government. Nixon's rapprochement with the Peking regime never sat well with the Republican right.
Evidence of mounting conservative Sinophobia came after the 1994 Republican landslide, when emboldened House Republicans pressed Bill Clinton to issue a visa for the president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the United States--something the United States had not done since severing diplomatic ties with Taipei in the 1970s. Clinton caved; Lee visited; and Sino-American relations started spiraling downward until they reached their nadir in a military stand-off in the Taiwan Strait in 1995.
Another escalation came just before election day in 1996, when the first stories began to emerge about what would come to be the Clinton-Gore campaign finance scandal--an event that would tie the right's recrudescent Sinophobia to its profound antipathy for Bill Clinton. Particular attention was focused on Bernard Schwartz, the Democratic Party's largest single contributor and head of Loral Space & Communications, Ltd., an aerospace manufacturer. Both Loral and the Hughes Space and Communications Company had helped the Chinese diagnose why rockets carrying Loral- and Hughes-manufactured satellites had failed on launch. And this assistance was later judged by the Defense Department to have violated technology export regulations. Proving a connection between the campaign finance scandal and the administration's allegedly lax policy of technology transfers to the Chinese military became a veritable Holy Grail for a cadre of congressional investigators, right-wing ideologues, and talk-radio sleuths. And the promise of finding such a connection prompted then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to set up the Cox Committee to investigate the question.
The much sought-after connection was never found. But the basic plot line seeped into the country's political culture much as though it had. Dramatic narratives of Clinton administration appeasement and betrayal could be found in best-sellers like Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised U.S. Security for Chinese Cash by Edward Timperlake and William Triplett, two Republican House staff investigators; Red Dragon Rising: Communist China's Military Threat to America by the same authors; and Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security by Washington Times national security writer Bill Gertz.
Admittedly, these books (each published by Regnery, a conservative publishing house) were read largely by an audience of die-hard conservatives willing to believe almost anything alleged about the president. But similar arguments and fables could commonly be heard at symposia of conservative think tanks and in testimony before congressional committees. Right-wing talk radio is filled with phrasing like "chi-coms." China, it's been argued, had smuggled automatic weapons to Los Angeles street gangs as part of an effort to destabilize the United States; it was gaining a toehold on the West Coast by leasing California port facilities; it was plotting to gain control of the Panama Canal and challenge American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. And, of course, it went without saying that China now had America's nuclear weapons technology because the Clinton administration had given it to them in exchange for cash donations from generals in the People's Liberation Army.
Many of these theories were dismissed as little more than paranoid foolery. But together with overblown descriptions of the rising Chinese military threat, this Chinese bogeyman furthered the Republican agenda on numerous fronts. As Stephen I. Schwartz wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Lee story "broke at a fortuitous time for advocates of legislation promoting a swift deployment of ballistic missile defenses." The thought that Chinese weapons and rocket technology had been vastly enhanced by lackadaisical or treasonous executive branch officials was also used to whip up support for a proposed national missile defense program, something Republicans had been promoting for years with only indifferent success.
Though the Cox report found no evidence that President Clinton had sold military secrets to the Chinese for campaign contributions, allegations of corrupt or treasonous bargains with the Chinese were bandied about as possible fodder for the House impeachment investigation and added to the catalogue of the president's alleged high crimes and misdemeanors.
By early 1999, as the cloud of impeachment began to fade, congressional investigations into the campaign finance scandal continued to drag on, and a quickening debate was underway on the dangers to national security purportedly detailed in the then-still-to-be-released Cox report. It was in this climate, on March 6, 1999, that The New York Times published its article about China's supposed theft of American technology used to miniaturize nuclear warheads and the existence of a suspected Taiwanese-American spy--as yet unnamed--whom the Clinton administration had been suspiciously slow to investigate. From the moment the story broke, the Lee case became not only another part of the prevalent China paranoia but the key element that bound it all together, the certifiable example not only of the Chinese threat but also of an administration either naïve enough or corrupt enough to leave the country vulnerable to the threat.
Of course, Lee's guilt or innocence has no necessary connection to the larger set of questions about China's intentions toward the United States or the caliber of threat China might pose. Just as Lee's guilt would not have validated the scare-mongering of the new Sinophobes, neither does his exoneration necessarily invalidate their claims. But the collapse of the Lee case ought to spark a broader reappraisal of the climate of paranoia and suspicion that has suffused our public debates about China. That would mean not only eschewing the obviously loony theories about Chinese plots to take over the Panama Canal, but also rethinking the more respectable, but no less wrong-headed, call to take an aggressive military posture on the Taiwan issue or deploy a theater missile defense in East Asia to defang China's small nuclear arsenal.
This doesn't mean that China isn't spying on us. But then states with superior technology are almost always spied upon by those who lack it. Espionage between great powers is a common practice. Even allies like Israel and France have sought a peek at American secrets. We should be on guard against all such forays, but not view them as menacing acts per se.
There is plenty of blame to go around for spreading the contagion of anti-Chinese paranoia throughout our political culture. Politicians have exploited the issue with reckless indifference to the facts. Journalists have sensationalized the stories and allowed themselves to become the mouthpieces of propagandists. Clearly, though, despite its right-wing provenance, the contagion has found fertile ground in many segments of American society--a sign of some strange malady afflicting prosperous societies with few real enemies. But as conservatives like to say in a rather different context, ideas have consequences. And the Lee case is just the most visible example.
A similar mixture of partisan politics, ideological motivation, and genuine fear was at work in the McCarthy era. But in the early 1950s, there really was a Soviet menace. The Cold War was real. This shouldn't excuse the villainies of those years or the cowardice and timidity of those who failed to stand up to the gratuitous red-baiting. But it does at least provide some mitigation and context for the excesses. What's our excuse today? ¤