2008/07/15

Chinese spies are everywhere!

This is a disturbing article from The New York Times. Essentially a scare-piece written as if to drum up paranoia against Chinese Americans and Chinese living in the United States, it largely relies on Joel F Brenner, the government's leader of counterintelligence, for the conclusion that China is pursuing an "orchestrated, deeply thought-out, strategic campaign" to steal American national security secrets and conduct industrial espionage.

The reporter suggests that American "authorities have reason to be more suspicious of Chinese researchers and students", as well as citizens of Chinese descent, whose "ethnic loyalty" is leading them to betray the United States. Brenner's claims as to the threat of Chinese spying should be taken especially seriously because of his deep understanding of the Chinese Mind. For example, in discussing the case of a Chinese-born engineer and "sleeper agent" who was convicted of selling China naval secrets after working his way up in the weapons industry, Brenner notes that this "bespeaks a patience that the Chinese are especially good at."

Perhaps Brenner was concerned that the reporter might miss his obvious Orientalism, because he goes on to illustrate China's strategy of collecting pieces of information to get a larger picture by saying, "You can get to know the dragon by its claw".

Our intrepid reporter does not provide any reason to think that the crafty Oriental who sold naval secrets was in fact a "sleeper agent" rather than someone who was contacted by the Chinese government after he reached a position that would make him useful. We do learn, however, that this threat to our national security will be jailed for 24 years - a fitting punishment for selling information that "was not classified, . . . although it was illegal to provide it to China." (In another case discussed in the article, a white man convicted of selling real secrets received a sentence of less than 5 years.)

Okay, so we have intelligence officials who learned about China primarily from 1930s movies, we have inscrutable yellow hordes infiltrating our society - but what do the Chinese want? According to Brenner, "China is especially interested in improving its naval capability against any threat from the United States and obtaining intelligence that might be important in a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait." In addition to government-directed spying, commercial trade secrets have also been targeted.

In other words, Chinese government spying is directed primarily at countering the threat of an American attack - it is completely defensive and does not threaten the United States in any way (America's imperial interests are, of course, another story). Chinese companies are mainly interested in getting access to advanced technology, which American companies hold monopoly over by virtue the US head-start in industrialism. And yet Brenner would have us believe we face a rising threat from China to our national security, and his mouthpiece at The Times - by excluding the possibility that American counterintelligence is protecting secrets that have no right to be kept - concurs.

The real threat China poses is to the military and economic hegemony that the USA exercises over the entire world. And barring a catastrophic economic crisis in China, that threat is only going to increase. With this rising danger to American supremacy, we can expect increased fear-mongering against China and against those of Chinese descent in the United States. We must be on guard against this kind of agitation, both to prevent racial profiling and to prevent getting sucked into a new cold - or hot - war in Asia.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

An article laden with that kind of orientalist jive obviously discredits itself. However, the Chinese government does send spies to the U.S. Is the purpose of such intelligence-gathering to threaten U.S. national security? In a sense, all such surveillance and intelligence-gathering threatens national security.

Does it matter? Yes, yellow peril tripe notwithstanding. I think we should be concerned when actors in the Chinese government hack into U.S. senators' computers to access lists of Chinese dissidents in the U.S. (recent AP story). And as you probably know, the Chinese government really does send people to the U.S., under the cover of being students and business people, in order to infiltrate dissident organizations, to gain access to U.S. government personnel and information, and to access and transfer U.S. military technology.

Because the Chinese government is anti-human rights at home and abroad, I do worry about its increasing hegemony. What's the proper policy solution? I'm not sure. But its worth noting that while much "national security" media hype is just that, espionage is a reality.

I understand you think we need to contest what "threats to national security" are and we need to question the U.S. supremacist undertone of national security discussions. But beyond that issue, Chinese surveillance is dangerous to the extent it helps the Chinese government maintain its hold on power.

I'm signing this NS and you know who it is - not with my name because of conflict of interest issues.

Jake said...

Yes, China does gather intelligence on the United States. Just like the United States gathers intelligence on China and every other country. But I would argue that Chinese intelligence gathering is primarily defensive, while American intelligence gathering is either meant to protect its position of domination or to facilitate armed aggression against those it brands enemies. So I'm far more concerned about American intelligence activities, which never come up for criticism, than I am about those of China.

Chinese intelligence does not threaten American national security. It does threaten American imperial security, but I have no problem with that.

"Chinese surveillance is dangerous to the extent it helps the Chinese government maintain its hold on power."

There's a tendency in the US to see the Chinese government as fundamentally repressive, holding power only thru coercion. In fact, the government holds power because it is seen as legitimate by the vast majority of the population. I don't accept that, any more than I accept the American government as legitimate. But wishing that most Americans or Chinese rejected the legitimacy of their governments does not change the fact that they don't.

"Because the Chinese government is anti-human rights at home and abroad, I do worry about its increasing hegemony."

First, China is no worse on human rights in its foreign policy than any other imperial power. I don't see any reason to think Chinese hegemony over Asia would be worse than America's has been. A multipolar imperial system generally opens up space for the weak to play the strong off against one another, so China's rise is probably better than the status quo.

From a human rights perspective, the most important thing is to avoid a new cold war or a real one, because the human rights violations involved in proxy wars and great power wars are always the worst. So it's alarming to see human rights groups obsessing over China.

The source of what we normally call human rights abuses, as well as the far more serious kinds of social violence embedded in the global economy and the global system of nation-states, is not a particular government's policies but the structures of power that create inequality and domination.

Human rights groups close their eyes to those structures, and in doing so make themselves the handmaids of US politicians seeking to rouse Americans against imperial enemies, or Chinese politicians looking to channel popular grievances into defensive nationalism. The way human rights criticism of China has been conducted thus far, well-intentioned tho it might be, just reproduces the same inequalities and dominations.

Anonymous said...

American politicians have such an economic stake in maintaining the policy of "constructive engagement" with China, that its hard to see how any such cold/hot war would occur or how human rights groups are doing the bidding of politicians. In fact, few U.S. politicians have a sincere interest in challenging the engagement policy, and pay only lip-service to human rights debate on China. The more human rights groups push issues like coercive family planning, the more politicians have to pretend to care, and the more they have to assuage the Chinese government.

So most U.S. politicians peddle the idea that we should engage with China, and you have odd bedfellows. A recent Harpers article on this ("The Mandarins," subscription only) discusses the touted myth that engagement has helped the American economy (it helps multinational corps and the finance inst. backing them, but not American and Chinese workers on the whole) and the personal economic ties that many U.S. politicians and 'consultants' have to China. (Not to mention American companies who want China as a market).

With regard to the current regime's power, it might be more accurate to say that power is maintained by acquiescence of the wealthier classes. "Human rights activists" and "dissidents" have traditionally been seen as coming from the intellectual, wealthier camps, but what about farmers whose land is taken, workers evicted from their homes and who are working in terrible conditions, and the general population suffering from rampant environmental degradation? These are human rights issues too, and I think they're good ones for us to "obsess" over.

So what does China's ascendancy mean if it trades off with what you term U.S. imperial interests? You would argue that the U.S. is not the human rights champion it purports to be, but it at least faces some domestic pressure and much international pressure in egregious situations (e.g. Gitmo - of course there are many counterexamples). There is little such domestic pressure in China because it is effective at repressing any dissent that does exist, and the Chinese government has shown resistance to changing in response to international pressure regarding Tibet, Sudan, etc.

The question isn't, of course, who would you rather have as your world hegemon. However, the Chinese government is worthy of concern precisely because of its strength and seeming invulnerability to criticism. It will not change as a result of world pressure, and as it becomes a world leader it will become a model of a successfully stable and prosperous anti-democratic, anti-human rights nation. Decry American imperialism, but what about softer, less obvious Chinese imperialism?

But anyway, why is the U.S. more worthy of approbation (human rights obsession) than China?

-ns

Jake said...

I'm going to add a post on the likelihood of cold war shortly.

"it might be more accurate to say that power is maintained by acquiescence of the wealthier classes. . . . what about farmers whose land is taken, workers evicted from their homes and who are working in terrible conditions, and the general population suffering from rampant environmental degradation?"

As I've written before, the primary victims of state authoritarianism and the market reforms do not hesitate to protest, but that does not mean they question the legitimacy of the government. They focus their anger on local government agents or factory personnel, and have thus far failed to make the connections between their many individual struggles and the national and transnational forces that are the real source of their problems. (This is the conclusion as well of a good survey of rural unrest, Rightful Resistance in Rural China by Kevin O'Brien and Li Lianjiang.) Those best positioned to make these connections - intellectuals - generally fear popular forces at least as much as the government.

I think we agree that economic and environmental rights are at least as important as the bourgeois democratic rights that human rights groups usually talk about (something else I've written about). And I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize China on all these things, or on its colonial policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, or its resource imperialism in Africa and elsewhere. What I'm saying is that divorcing our critique of China from the structural sources of its crimes and from the very similar structures that produce the crimes of the US government is counterproductive and dangerous.

Leaving out that all-important context not only leaves you with a lousy analysis utterly incapable of changing anything, it makes your critique available to any demagogue who wants to use it. In contrast, when you say that China's market reforms require state authoritarianism, that the massive violation of labor rights is driven by the desire to attract foreign capital, that Chinese support for Sudan is produced by the system of competitive nation-states and it will not end until a different global energy system emerges - suddenly it's much harder for American politicians and cold warriors to toss around polemics that hit the USA at least as hard as they hit China. And when you make clear that your criticisms of China apply at least as much to the USA, you make it harder for Chinese demagogues to cast your critique as an imperialist assault.

There are two reasons that it's more important to criticize the USA than China: first, we have far more power to change American policies than we do those of China. And second, as the global hegemon, the United States is the final guarantor of those structures that produce the abuses and crimes we want to end. The hierarchy of nation-states, privileging capital over everything else, environmental unsustainability - none of these things will be broken until we end America's support for them.

Anonymous said...

Re: "But I would argue that Chinese intelligence gathering is primarily defensive, while American intelligence gathering is either meant to protect its position of domination or to facilitate armed aggression against those it brands enemies..."

Jake, you are an idiot. No, anti-American scum. You are one of "The Enemy Within" that Michael Savage talks and writes about.

Re: "First, China is no worse on human rights in its foreign policy than any other imperial power. I don't see any reason to think Chinese hegemony over Asia would be worse than America's has been..."

Then you're also uneducated, or more likely, willfully ignorant, or even worse, another Chinese spy.

Re: "...two reasons that it's more important to criticize the USA than China: first, we have far more power to change American policies than we do those of China...second, as the global hegemon, the United States is the final guarantor of those structures that produce the abuses and crimes we want to end..."

So expanded, does that mean you suggest that we bring home our spies, and then China and the rest of our (hopefully only) cold war enemies will follow suit?

Now would be a great time for you to emigrate to China, you anti-American jackass.