Spy Charges Unfounded

The new charges of spying leveled at China reflect basic misunderstandings about both China and its supposed dependence on U.S. high-tech expertise.Consider the case of "Tianji." This is a palmtop computer conceived, designed and built in China, to be introduced in the United States later this year. The wallet-sized computer can send and receive e-mail, surf the Internet and operates for 17 hours on 2 AA batteries -- comparable with products made by U.S. or Japanese companies.The manufacturer of this palmtop, Legend, a state enterprise in Beijing, came from nowhere to capture the largest share of China's personal computer market -- now the sixth largest in the world -- in 1996, racing past Compaq, Hewlett Packard and IBM.According to legend (with a small "l"), Legend's CEO, Mr. Liu Chuanzhi was shown a palmtop being produced in Taiwan on a visit there in May 1998 -- and told there was no way to make one without access to U.S. technology.Liu returned to Beijing and told his design team that he wanted as good a palmtop as any in the world and quickly. In four months, he had the Tianji.China's best computer science programs are within Beijing University and its neighbor, Tsinghua University, two institutions invariably compared with Harvard and M.I.T. Intel and Microsoft have recently established R&D laboratories near these universities.Microsoft's lab is developing a device that turns the home TV into a machine for Internet surfing. The product will be designed, tested and first sold in China, then, if successful, introduced to the rest of the world. That would be a first for Microsoft, a reversal of the usual flow of technology from the Seattle area.These high tech companies understand -- as folks in Washington apparently do not -- that technology does not come in neat little boxes with easily identified owners. The United States is not the only place where technological advances are happening.Technological development depends on the intellectual prowess and motivation of the people doing the work. It is manifested in publications, products, conversations, trade shows, conferences, patents. Innovations frequently appear simultaneously in multiple locations.So far the much ado about espionage has led to the dismissal of one hapless scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory for not following security procedures.Even though this scientist, a Taiwan-born Chinese American, has not been arrested or charged with any crime, the media and the powers-that-be have been calling up a specter of looming nuclear holocaust.The San Jose Mercury News, for example, quoted liberally from former CIA officials on the strength of China's long term planning and the advantage of having a large number of ethnic Chinese living in the U.S., and that (surprise!) they have strong cultural bonds to their motherland.The implication is that this scientist is just the tip of the iceberg. With so many Chinese Americans working in technically sensitive areas, China stands to be the recipient of a bounty of devastating secrets.The high profile dismissal might serve to placate some critics of the Clinton Administration for the moment, but what about all the Chinese American scientists working in government laboratories? Can the United States afford to dismiss them all? Can any of these scientists be confident that he or she won't become the next sacrifice on the altar of political struggle in Washington?The space suit that allowed the Apollo program to send a man to the moon was designed by a Chinese American -- an achievement acknowledged by NASA only decades later. China plans to send its own astronauts to outer space within the next decade. Can we expect American politicians to launch another investigation into who stole what, again starting with the Chinese American connection?

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