Asians of Influence

Asians of InfluenceRACIAL POLITICS

Is it racist to decry espionage?

Sherlock Holmes would have had little difficulty in analyzing the real motives behind the recent expressions of concern from prominent Democrats such as U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson, the Chinese government, and Asian-American activists about the racist reactions of prominent Republicans, the Washington media elite, and the American people towards Chinese-Americans, and Asian-Americans generally, as a result of the China spy scandal.

"You say, Watson, that the dog barked on the night of the crime. Curiously, that same dog had also barked on the night of a previous crime. On both occasions, however, when inquiry was made, there was no sign that any assault had been attempted on the distinguished Chinese- Americans whom the dog was allegedly guarding. Plainly, the dog had been trained to bark whenever a crime was being committed elsewhere-in one case when illegal donations were accepted from a foreign power, in the second when military secrets were transferred to that self same power. On both occasions the canine noise served to distract the attention of passersby from these nefarious transactions. It all points to a criminal mind of almost diabolical craftiness. But unless I am very much mistaken, behind the sinister mask of Dr. Fu Manchu we shall find the smiling features of William Jefferson Clinton."

"The Arkansas Fundraising Chain-letter Perjuror?" I gasped.

"The very same," replied the great detective impassively. "It is perhaps his greatest coup in a life devoted to crime of every sort."

It is, in fact, quite hard to find actual expressions of anti-Chinese or anti-Asian racism in public statements by Republicans or anyone else. The nearest thing to an allegedly bigoted remark came from Alabama's Sen. Richard Shelby, who described the Chinese spies behind the stealing of U.S. technology as "crafty." This was seized upon as an, er, crafty employment of an ethnic stereotype about Asians. But since the spies undoubtedly were crafty-that comes with being a spy-the bigotry could well repose in the minds of those who heard the word "crafty" and instantly leapt to the conclusion that Shelby must have intended an ethnic slur.

Even before Sen. Shelby had committed his faux pas, however, Amb. Richardson had denounced those who were supposedly questioning "the patriotism of Asian-Pacific Americans and sowing the seeds of a darker xenophobia" because of the spy scandal. But his denunciation, bravely issued to a meeting of Chinese-Americans in New York, contained no hard evidence of anti-Chinese racism. And when the Los Angeles Times sought to fill this gap with anonymous anecdotes of "ethnic profiling" in America's nuclear-weapons laboratories, these turned out to be less than totalitarian. For example, "Snickering and hushed laughter broke out in a roomful of computer users as a person with a Chinese surname was introduced to lead a session on computer security."

Let us concede that such behavior can be wounding even if it is superficially jovial. We must go on to ask who or what is responsible for it and for the climate that prompts it. Most accounts blame Americans first. They leave no doubt that the racism of ordinary Americans-made worse by politicians who incite and aggravate it-is to blame. Richardson's speech, for instance, defended Asian-Americans against unnamed American racists. A spokesman for Beijing similarly blamed the spy scandal on "typical racial prejudice."

Then Maurice Meisner declared in the Los Angeles Times that "opportunistic American politicians now portray Chinese in stereotypical fashion. The increasingly dominant images are of 19th century vintage: Chinese are crafty, deceitful, villainous and half- crazed automatons manipulated by evil rulers. It has become ever more difficult for Americans to see Chinese as fellow humans," etc., etc. There is a neat symmetry here. Meisner's picture of Americans might almost be of "half-crazed automatons manipulated by evil rulers." But the reader will search in vain for any evidence supporting such a picture.

Finally, William Wong, a columnist in the San Francisco Examiner, detected "the smell of political and possibly racial hysteria" in American reactions, observed that some Americans were "screaming" about China's stealing of U.S. secrets, and so on. He did not cite any actual American racist demanding that all Chinese-Americans should be penalized because one had fallen under suspicion of nuclear espionage. And I imagine that if another columnist were to write that some Americans remember the torture of American POWs in Korea by the Chinese army, Wong would be "screaming" racism by the end of the second paragraph.

Was there indeed any single case of an American or American organization penalizing all Asian-Americans because of the sins of some Asian-Americans? Yes-just one. The Democratic National Committee ceased to accept Asian-American contributions and returned some already received because of embarrassment over the Huang affair. But none of those indignantly denouncing American racism seem to remember that.

If there is precious little sign of racists spreading hate propaganda against Chinese-Americans, who then is responsible for the "snickering and hushed laughter" described above? Surely the villains, in ascending order of importance, are as follows:

First, there are those individual Chinese-Americans who acted as the agents of a foreign power either to loot America's nuclear secrets or to distort America's elections. John Huang, for instance, funneled illegal contributions to the DNC from the Chinese government, and Peter Lee, a physicist at Los Alamos, betrayed American military secrets on a lecture trip to China when Beijing appealed to his ethnic loyalty.

Second, the Chinese government not only employed espionage against the U.S.; it planted its spies among Chinese immigrants and, while denouncing concern for American security as "racism," sought itself to play the race card by appealing to the ethnic sympathies of all Chinese, whatever their citizenship or place of birth, to place Beijing first in their loyalty.

Both the Chinese officials and their Chinese-American agents thereby cast doubt on the loyalties of millions of patriotic Chinese-Americans. Beijing revealed that it at least believed in the power of ethnicity over citizenship, and Lee and Huang demonstrated that Beijing had calculated right in some cases. That does not mean, of course, that the overwhelming majority of Chinese-Americans are not as loyal as Sergeant York; it does mean that individual Chinese-Americans applying for high- security positions may have to meet scrutiny on that score.

We rely on the U.S. government to make prudent judgments in this area. The Clinton administration is thus the third villain of the piece. By taking Beijing's money (almost certainly knowingly), by channeling it illegally through Asian-Americans, by concealing evidence of its own complicity as long as it could, by removing strategic controls on technology in return for campaign contributions from both China and American business, by turning a blind eye to evidence of serious espionage to the extent of refusing the FBI permission to wiretap a suspect, and finally by denouncing the investigation of such crimes as inspired by anti-Chinese racism, the administration has created the climate of "mild unease" cited by Bill Richardson in which no one can trust the government to protect the national interest and in which unassuaged suspicions become so much "snickering and hushed laughter."