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With the release of the Cox Commission report, the growing national hysteria regarding relations with China has reached troubling, even alarming, proportions. Growing international hostility between America and China rather than apparent Chinese spying in America is the far greater threat to our national security.
The basic conclusions of the Cox Report are certainly correct: China has undoubtedly engaged for decades in a systematic campaign of legal and illegal intelligence gathering activities in the U.S. But the implication that such activities are an indication of Chinese hostility or that they seriously endanger American security are far less obvious. And there is a real risk that such implications will feed the popular and populist temptation to demonize China as the new “Evil Empire” and the proper target of a new Cold War.
All major nations gather intelligence, and for China not to be targeting America—the world’s overwhelmingly dominant military and technological superpower—would be the remarkable news. Just a few years ago, Israel—one of America’s closest allies and the recipient of billions in annual aid—was revealed to have for years been using American Jews such as Jonathan Pollard as CIA moles, resulting in what has often been described as perhaps the gravest security breach in American history. By contrast, most of China’s actions seem to have involved the collection and analysis of legally available data from public sources. Even the one case of alleged espionage reported in the press, that of Taiwanese-born Wen Ho Lee, seems largely circumstantial, and no criminal charges have yet even been filed. There does seem to have been considerable laxness in the security of America’s nuclear laboratories, but that is America’s fault not China’s, and would be a cause for concern even if no other nation had tried to exploit the weakness.
Furthermore, the report’s loose talk of “up to” 3000 Chinese-owned companies in America having “possible” links to Chinese intelligence (when intelligence sources say that the actual number of Chinese “front companies” is probably just a dozen or two) may engender a very harmful wave of ethnic McCarthyism, unjustly casting clouds of suspicion on hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Chinese-Americans working and studying in America. Since so many of these individuals are among our finest and most productive research scientists and technology workers, making their lives uncomfortable would be the real disaster for America’s future. Our nation has only just begun to recover from the bitterly divisive immigration wars of the mid-1990s, and we should ensure that those sentiments are not now revived under the new guise of national security.
During our long Cold War, America faced an enormous military power governed by a expansionist, totalitarian ideology, which aimed thousands of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles at American cities. China, today, while hardly a democracy, is even so less a totalitarian regime, and the actual freedoms of ordinary Chinese in their economic, social, and religious activities have grown almost exponentially over the past 30 years. Chinese are freer and more prosperous today than they have ever been before, and tens of thousands of them have exercised that freedom to live and study in the United States, benefiting both our nations tremendously. A huge and growing share of our foreign trade is directly or indirectly dependent on China, and that, too is of mutual benefit. As for the military balance, China possesses just 20 nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S. compared to our 5,000 or more, and China’s government has seemed in no real rush to alter this balance, hardly the actions of a threatening power.
China does face very real problems—the economic inefficiency of its shrinking state sector and its inability to root out endemic corruption—but regardless it will certainly be one of the two world superpowers of the 21st Century, and has no obvious reason for hostility toward America. In recent weeks, an unfortunate sequence of independent events have suddenly threatened to undermine decades of growing friendship with China: Clinton’s craven refusal to support Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization, our accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the resultant anti-American demonstrations in Beijing, and now the Cox Commission Report.
We must all do whatever we can to weather this storm, and avoid a permanent breach, one which both of our nations and both of our peoples will long regret.