US spy story recycles old yellow peril fears

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am


Bloomberg last week published a remarkable piece of propaganda that smeared Chinese university students in the US as spies.

In an article awkwardly headlined 'American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies Detected by FBI', reporter Daniel Golden and his editors used language evocative of the 19th-century yellow peril hysteria to depict the American higher education system as under assault from hordes of deep-cover Chinese moles.

'Unlike its counterparts in other countries, which rely on their own operatives, China's intelligence service deploys a freelance network including students, researchers and false-front companies ... China sent 76,830 graduate students to US universities in 2010-2011, more than any other country,' it said.

Bloomberg's sources are mostly present or former FBI, CIA and military officials, along with four presidents of universities (which rely on federal subsidies). Similar articles have appeared in other outlets over the past two years, but the Bloomberg piece went viral.

The article contains examples of alleged Chinese espionage that are supposed to be unsettling but are actually comical.

A Motorola engineer went on a document copying spree that would have been flagged by any competent computer security system. A reported attempt to recruit a US student as a sleeper failed after his CIA and State Department job applications were rejected. One 'operative' publicly posted her Beijing address - that of a Chinese military academy.

If these people were agents, their tradecraft was atrocious, and Beijing's spymasters should ask for a larger training budget.

The article makes little distinction between military and commercial secrets and gives no rationale as to why US prosecutors should apply criminal laws to situations that can be addressed through civil actions.

The parties demanding a tougher stance towards China argue that some university research has potential military application, but that can be said about much in the natural or computer sciences. And, the article treats 'potential military application' as proven when the claim deserves scepticism.

The piece also sidesteps the issue that much of what the US government apparently considers espionage is not illegal. Charges of unlawful dissemination of classified files is often based upon a contract provision or job requirement, and the main criminal charge entered against spies is for the paperwork crime of failing to register as a foreign agent.

The US should cease its scaremongering, and Western news outlets should be less credulous when cops and spooks start peddling a yellow scare.

Paul Karl Lukacs writes about law and media.