Spies? Who, us?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 12:00am

When one government leader was told of the arrest of two of his citizens by a neighbouring country for espionage, he reportedly said: 'This is no surprise. We do it. They do it. Everyone does it.' That seems to be the attitude of most countries towards spying - everyone does it, just try not to get caught.

But China seems to be an exception. Almost every time someone is accused of spying for Beijing, the charge is vehemently denied. Thus last week, when a Foreign Ministry spokesman was asked about allegations that a Chinese agent had been involved in espionage in the United States, his answer was that the charges had been 'totally made up'.

The charges involved a retired air force officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Wilbur Fondren, a deputy director of the US Pacific Command's Washington liaison office. He was accused by the US Justice Department of leaking classified information to China between November 2004 and February 2008.

Ma Zhaoxu , the Foreign Ministry spokesman, waxed indignant. 'We urge the US to abandon its cold war mindset,' he said, 'stop its groundless accusations against China and do more to improve mutual trust and friendship between peoples.'

Mr Ma seemed to imply that now the cold war is over, espionage - at least on the part of China - no longer exists. Beijing, it appears, no longer needs to spy.

This has been China's attitude for some time. Nine years ago, when Washington was abuzz with reports that China had stolen details of the most advanced US nuclear weapons, another Chinese spokesman cited a 'cold war mentality' in which some Americans had 'made up the lies that China stole the nuclear technology from the US in an attempt to defame China and undermine China-US relations'.

Of course, not all charges of espionage on the part of China are justified. The Fondren case has not yet gone to trial, and there is some truth to the Chinese assertions. Certainly, Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born American scientist who had been identified in the US press as a mainland spy, was ultimately vindicated. And the anti-China charges at the time were, to a large extent, being used as political ammunition against the Clinton administration. But it is simply not credible for China to maintain that, while other countries continue to spy on China, China does not spy on other countries.

China certainly knows full well that the world is full of spies. The day after the Foreign Ministry denied the need for spying now that the cold war is over, a Beijing court handed down an 18-year sentence to a former senior Chinese journalist for accepting 3 million yen (HK$245,000) from Japanese diplomats in exchange for providing state secrets.

And last December, China executed a man charged with spying for Taiwan, despite appeals from the international community. Instead, it presented evidence which, it said, proved that the man had leaked strategic missile data to Taiwanese intelligence and had brought about an 'extraordinary loss to national security'.

There are many allegations of Chinese spying in various forms, including industrial and computer espionage. But, every time, the charges are denied with expressions of injured innocence.

This does no good for China's credibility. Other countries believe that Beijing has a vast network of agents and to deny each charge as it comes up is simply not effective. It would be a much better strategy for China to adopt the same policy as other countries; that is, simply refuse to comment on individual cases.

In this regard, a 2002 case provides a model. A reporter at a Foreign Ministry press conference on July 4 posed the question: 'It's reported that a Russian scientist was tried in Vladivostok ... with espionage for China. What's your comment?'

The response: 'I have no such information and therefore I am in no position to make any comment.'

That should be the standard response to cases of espionage, rather than emotional denials that have worn thin over the years.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator