The Other Side of the Coin on Alleged Chinese Espionage

In my post last night about Rongxing Li, a former Ohio State professor now suspected of illegal export of technology to China, I cautioned, “I would suggest some skepticism about the accuracy of these early reports…” An article in today’s New York Times shows why caution is warranted.

According to Prof. Xi’s lawyer and experts hired in Xi’s defense, the professor was the victim of overzealous actions by FBI agents and a federal attorney. The government has now dropped charges against Xi. Assuming the charges are not refiled, both the government and Temple University owe Xi a huge apology.

None of this has any bearing on the Li case, and as mentioned in my last post, in many of the (mostly industrial) Chinese espionage cases, the accused have pleaded guilty. And some cases are simply not black-and-white, such as the Wen Ho Lee case, in which I was somewhat involved. The Wikipedia entry for the case is pretty accurate, in particular these excerpts:

On December 10, 1999, Lee was arrested, indicted on 59 counts, and jailed in solitary confinement without bail for 278 days until September 13, 2000, when he accepted a plea bargain from the federal government…President Bill Clinton issued a public apology to Lee over his treatment by the federal government during the investigation…The federal judge who heard the case during an earlier appeal said that “top decision makers in the executive branch” “have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen”…In 1982, Lee [had been] recorded on a wiretap speaking with another Taiwanese-American scientist who had been accused of espionage. Lee offered to the scientist to find out who had turned him in. When confronted by the FBI about this incident, Lee said he did not know the scientist, until the FBI demonstrated proof of the conversation. Despite some evidence that could have kept the case open, the FBI closed this file on Lee in 1984.

During Lee’s incarceration, a group of us suspected strongly that Dr. Lee’s rights to due process were being trampled on, a suspicion later borne out, culminating in Judge Parker’s dramatic apology to Lee in open court. On the other hand, that earlier incident in which Lee had called a confessed spy, out of the blue, is confirmed in Lee’s own book, and those who today claim that Lee was targeted by the FBI simply because of his Chinese ethnicity — a theme seen in today’s Times article — are simply incorrect.

Hopefully the Xi case will give the government cause to be vigilant but careful. In this light, a 2013 reversal of arguably over-the-top government policy involving China and a research conference shows again how haste leads to embarrassing U-turns.


3 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Coin on Alleged Chinese Espionage

  1. Norm,

    While there now appears to have been nothing amiss in the cases in question, the individuals apparently behaved in a very suspicious manner and in doing do called motives into question. In this day and age, all must be extra vigilant and all involved in research that might have defense or commercial value need to be aware that their conduct is being observed and that suspicious behavior should be reported to authorities. This is also true for individuals involved in the acquisition of potentially harmful materials.This goes for native born American citizens as well as naturalized citizens and guest workers and students. It is not limited to nationals from any one part of the world. Lying to state and federal investigative agencies tends to indicate guilt. Unusual conduct may indicate a person whose honesty could be questioned or whose mental state makes they easily influenced. If one has done nothing wrong, he should welcome the oversight and be a willing participant in any investigation.

    By the same token, American citizens participating in research – or consulting – abroad need to be mindful of the rights of their host institution and country. They should be aware that their innocent actions can be taken as intruding on the rights of their host country or organization.

    Each of our views of what is appropriate is colored by our life experiences. As an elementary student in a foreign country, I crawled out of my school because of a revolution that had reached the doorstep; bullets were hitting the school and a police officer had been killed on the lawn. Add to that the experiences of family members on active duty in the military from WW1 until today. I take a very skeptical view of atypical conduct by individuals in sensitive research in the interest of national security. I doubt few grandmothers except whose children and grandchildren are now targets of terrorists because of a spouse’s/parent’s position worry whether an article of clothing might identify them as a military family. When military family members are told not to travel in uniform on federal business even in the US (twenty years ago they wore uniforms to the US border and changed into civvies for overseas travel) or even wear their uniforms when not required, things are not going well when it comes to national security. When I find a researcher making presentations in countries hostile to the US on topics directly related to the area in which my military family member works and whose life depends on the enemy not knowing US secrets, I become angry. It is far better to take prompt action on suspicious behavior than to cost lives in the future.


    • I qualified my statements by saying “If the charges are not refiled,” but in looking now at the old articles on the Xi case, including one that links to the criminal complaint, it doesn’t seem likely that that will happen. Xi doesn’t seem to have broken either the letter or spirit of the law.

      Nevertheless, even the Xi case supports the notion I had brought up in my previous posting: In many cases, the immigrant engineers and scientists ARE helping our competitors. This should be a consideration in our formulating skilled-immigration policy. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take any skilled immigrants — I continue to firmly believe we should take “the best and the brightest” — but we do need to be realistic about what might happen.


  2. We don’t normally know who the successful spies are, but ‘someone is doing the stealing.’

    “The massive military parade in Beijing this week showcased China’s latest weapons, unveiling many to the public for the first time. But weapons experts say the systems on display showed hallmarks of China’s reputation for stealing technology and adapting it to its requirements…

    U.S. defense contractors have alleged that China’s J-31 stealth fighter is largely based on stolen technology of the U.S. F-35”


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