For many Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, the Wen Ho Lee spying case pushed them decisively in the direction of racial consciousness. Mr. Lee is a Taiwan-born scientist who became a naturalized US citizen and worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 1999, he was accused of spying for China and was held for nine months in solitary confinement during an investigation.
The case never came to a conclusion, partly because the New York Times leaked his identity and the resulting coverage derailed the investigation. Espionage charges were withdrawn as part of a plea bargain, in which Mr. Lee confessed to one felony count of improperly downloading classified information to unsecured computers. He never gave a plausible explanation for why he needed this information. It also came to light that Chinese authorities had asked him to spy for them, and he had violated regulations by not reporting this.
The federal judge who handled the case pointed out to Mr. Lee that he had plead guilty to a serious crime but he also apologized for prosecutorial misconduct. Mr. Lee eventually won a judgment of $1.6 million from the US government and five different media companies because his identity as a suspect had been leaked.
It is a murky case, and certainly appears to have been mishandled by the government, but many Asian organizations were convinced it was a case of pure racial profiling. Asian Week wrote about Mr. Lee’s “martyrdom,” and charged that Asians had been “singled out and looked upon with suspicion.” Albert Wang, a California doctor who championed Mr. Lee, called his prosecution “the major Chinese-American civil rights case in the last 30 years.” Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium called Mr. Lee’s case a “watershed.” “This community [Asians] bought into the notion that if you work hard, pay attention to your family, you will be accepted,” she said. “This case says it’s not true.”
Supporters created the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund and raised $100,000 for his legal bills. The Association for Asian American Studies and a group called Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education called on all Asian Americans to refuse to work for federal nuclear laboratories. They argued that because Asians and Asian Americans account for a quarter of all doctorates awarded in the US in science and technology, a boycott would seriously hurt the labs.
In 2004, four years after the plea bargain, the Asian legislative caucus in the California state house announced it would publicly honor Mr. Lee with a “profiles in courage” award. It backed down after a furious reaction from what Mr. Lee’s supporters called “racist, right-wing zealots.”
Nearly 10 years after charges were initially filed, Chinese-Americans were still angry about the Lee case, and fought President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson as commerce secretary. Mr. Richardson was energy secretary at the time of the Lee accusations and had cabinet-level responsibility for Los Alamos. Asian Week was convinced Mr. Richardson had encouraged the prosecution exclusively for racial reasons: “It was a de facto APA [Asian Pacific Islander] witch-hunt set off by Richardson’s green light: the xenophobic targeting of Lee as a spy . . . Richardson found a way to use fear of Asians to whip up hysteria against Asian Americans not seen since World War II.”
Mr. Richardson withdrew his nomination because of an investigation into business dealings as governor of New Mexico. Had he not done so, Asian groups would have tried to stop his appointment, even if it meant angering Hispanics, who strongly favored Mr. Richardson.
The case certainly raised sensitive questions. Is it possible Mr. Lee could have been tempted to spy for China because of a feeling of kinship? It is well known that, loyalties, whether national, ethnic, or racial are deeply emotional.
On some occasions, Chinese living in North America have not been shy about expressing their deepest loyalties. In 1999, the American women’s soccer team met the Chinese team in Los Angeles for the finals of the Women’s World Cup. Los Angeles has long had large Chinese communities from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland that felt little love for each other, but they set aside their differences to root with one voice for the Chinese team. “There are political differences, but because the team is Chinese, that’s all we think about,” explained Louis Wong, a Chinatown news vendor who came from Hong Kong.
Two groups that did not ordinarily get along–the Chinese consulate and conservative Chinese business organizations–joined forces to buy seats in the same section so thousands of Chinese-American fans could sit together and make a tremendous din for the Beijing team. The idea that Chinese might have come together to root for their new homeland would have been laughable. “I’m a US citizen, but I’m Chinese,” explained businessman Edward Chang.
When China hosted the Olympic Games in 2008 the sentiment of Canadian-Chinese was much the same. Andrea Chun, a Toronto lawyer and television host, explained that “when it comes to the games, most Chinese-Canadians are rooting for China, to be honest,” adding, “They won’t admit it if you ask them, but for sure they are.” Rich Chan, a personal trainer who had lived his entire life in Canada was happy to admit it. “I’m going with China. China all the way,” he said.
Athletic teams represent nations in contests that have decisive, win-or-lose outcomes. International athletics therefore feed many of the emotions aroused by war. In Los Angeles, Chinese-Americans did their best to give the Beijing team a home-field advantage when it played the American team. Would it be so surprising if some of the thousands who cheered the Chinese team expressed their loyalty in other ways? Is it wrong to wonder if they might?
China is hungry for American technology, and devotes a major part of its huge espionage effort to the United States. The Chinese method of spying is different from that of the classic, Soviet technique of sending trained professionals to burrow deep into enemy infrastructure. Beijing gets intelligence from thousands of part-time and amateur spies: students, businessmen, and Chinese citizens of target countries. According to the US government Intelligence Threat Handbook, 98 percent of the Americans the Chinese approach for information are Chinese-Americans: “Ethnic targeting to arouse feelings of obligation is the single most distinctive feature of PRC intelligence operations.”
According to a joint FBI/CIA report, “When approaching an individual of Chinese origin, the Chinese intelligence services attempt to secure his or her cooperation by playing on this shared ancestry.” David Szady, chief of FBI counterintelligence operations explained that Chinese spies “don’t consider anyone to be American-Chinese. They’re all considered overseas Chinese.” He noted that the politically correct pretense that American citizens never fall for this appeal interferes with the FBI’s counterespionage work.
Actual arrests, which, according to government sources, “are just the tip of the iceberg of an already-large and increasingly capable PRC [Peoples Republic of China] intelligence effort,” show that some Chinese-Americans are, indeed, susceptible to racial-nationalist appeals. In 2004, seven officers and employees of two New Jersey companies were arrested for transferring sensitive information on radar, smart weapons, and electronic warfare to Chinese government research institutes. The presidents of Universal Technologies and Manten Electronics were among the seven. Five were naturalized Chinese-Americans and the other two were permanent-resident Chinese.
Likewise in 2004, Ting-Ih Hsu, a naturalized US citizen and president of Azure Systems, pleaded guilty in Orlando, Florida, to exporting to China low-noise amplifier chips used in Hellfire missile systems. Also pleading guilty was Hai Lin Nee, a Chinese citizen and an employee of Azure Systems.
In 2005, Chi Mak, a naturalized Chinese American who held a “secret” level security clearance, was arrested for stealing classified details of submarine propulsion systems from his employer, Power Paragon, of Anaheim, California. His wife and a number of other family members helped him copy the information and deliver it to China. Mr. Mak was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to 241⁄2 years in prison in 2008. Also in 2005, Zhao Xin Zhu was sentenced in Boston to two years in prison and three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to trying to send night vision equipment and satellite technology to China. That same year, Jinghua and Xiuwen Liang, both naturalized citizens living in Thousand Oaks, California, were sentenced to 21⁄2 years imprisonment for exporting parts of F-14 fighters and various missile systems to China.
Likewise in 2005, naturalized citizens Ning Wen and his wife, Hailin Lin, were arrested in Wisconsin for smuggling electronics for use in missiles and radar systems. In 2006, Mr. Wen was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine.
In 2006, Xiangdong Sheldon Meng, a naturalized US citizen living in Cupertino, California, was arrested for stealing night vision training software from a Silicon Valley defense contractor and trying to sell it to military buyers in Thailand, Malaysia, and China. That same year Fei Ye, a naturalized US citizen, and Ming Zhong, a permanent US resident, pleaded guilty to stealing civilian chip technology from Silicon Valley firms for delivery to China.
In February 2007, China-born, naturalized citizen Hanjuan Jin of Schaumburg, Illinois, was stopped at Chicago’s O’Hare airport with a one-way ticket to Peking, $30,000 in cash, and an estimated $600 million worth of trade secrets stolen from Motorola and another Chicago-area electronics firm, Lemko. In March 2008, she was charged with stealing trade secrets to take to China.
In 2008, the president of a Virginia-based high-tech company, Quan-Sheng Shu, pleaded guilty to selling rocket technology to China. A naturalized citizen, he was fined $400,000 and received a sentence of four years and three months. Likewise in 2008, naturalized citizen Tai Shen Kuo pleaded guilty in Alexandria, Virginia to selling data on Taiwan’s air defenses to China.
In February 2009, Yaming Nina Qi Hanson of Maryland was caught trying to take flight controls for miniature reconnaissance planes to China. She said she wanted to help China in its development efforts.
In July 2009, a federal judge found Dongfan “Greg” Chung guilty of delivering space shuttle secrets to China. Since 1973, when he started work at Rockwell International, he had stored more than 300,000 pages of secret documents in his home. “Mr. Chung has been an agent of the People’s Republic of China for over 30 years,” Judge Cormac Carney wrote, and noted that the naturalized US citizen “proudly proclaimed [China] as his “motherland’.”
Other Asian-Americans have been disloyal. Robert Kim, a naturalized citizen from South Korea who worked as an intelligence analyst for the Navy, was arrested in 1996 for turning over classified information to the South Korean Embassy. In an interview in 2004 after he was released from seven years in jail, he claimed to love America, his “adopted country,” but in an interview published in a South Korean paper he said he considered himself Korean first and foremost. Korean supporters called him a true patriot.
There is no official count of the number of Chinese-Americans who have been convicted of spying or helping the Chinese arms industry but there must be scores of them. Only Wen Ho Lee ever became a cause célèbre or prompted accusations of racial profiling. Was he really the victim of an anti-Asian witch hunt or was he a spy whose investigation was bungled? Whatever his supporters may say, racial and national ties are strong, and American counterespionage efforts must take them into consideration.
Clearly, only a small number of Asian-Americans are spies for China. However, there can be no doubt that Asians are more likely to spy for China than are non-Asians, and if they are going to be spies they are far more likely to spy for an Asian country than for Russia, for example. National bonds are strong.
This is not to place special blame on Asians. If Mexico were trying to develop sophisticated weapons and Mexican-Americans were in a position to help them, they would probably be just as active as Asians. Indeed, if roles were reversed, whites would probably be just as likely to be disloyal citizens of Asian nations. Questions of loyalty are always a problem in heterogeneous nations and security breaches will always be more common in such a nation than in one that is homogeneous.
At the same time, the very diversity of the United States and the openly parochial identities of so many non-whites have encouraged Asian Americans to reverse course on the road to assimilation. They are a group that at one time made great efforts to assimilate, but as blacks, Mexicans, and other Hispanics cultivate distinctive identities–and win political power, cultural recognition, and “affirmative action” benefits by doing so–why should Asians remain the “model minority” that does not try to thrust itself forward? It is no wonder that younger Asians now reject a label their elders worked to earn.
The Japanese-American poet Amy Uyematsu, who was born after the war, criticized her parents’ and grand-parents’ generations for trying to gain acceptance by “denying their yellowness” and complained that they were “white in every respect but color.”
Bill Seki, a Los Angeles lawyer born in the early 1960s, takes a similar view. He says his Japanese-American parents tried very hard to assimilate, to become “Americans first,” but the result was that “people take Japanese Americans for granted.” Mr. Seki does not want to be taken for granted. Instead, he says: “One comment you commonly get is, ‘You’re just like another white guy.’ No, that’s completely wrong.”
Presumably Mr. Seki’s parents would have considered it high praise to be thought no different–and treated no differently–from whites, but that view is passé. Race or ethnicity now comes before a larger American identity. The one racial group in addition to whites that at one time seemed committed to transcending race is moving away from that commitment.