Not a Chinaman's Chance

Advocates Doubt Wen Ho Lee Release Will Change Anti-Asian Politics

CAA's Chin, who coordinated public education efforts about the civil rights issues in Lee's case, says, "We wanted a win, a full-out victory," including disclosure of the government's selective prosecution practices. Indeed, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund director Margaret Fung says that Lee's release "doesn't change anything for those of us who are concerned with racial profiling or bias."


Alarmist sentiment is encapsulated in a report on China-related national security. Pages laden with more rhetoric than data paint a frightening picture of a Chinese nuclear threat and an ethnic group almost pathologically prone to spying.


Eric Tang of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities has a stronger take, saying, "Lee's folding is a dark day in Asian American history."

"The conditions under which the Wen Ho Lee case surfaced are still there," warns UC Berkeley Asian American studies coordinator Ling-chi Wang, arguing that the case should be viewed as part of a broader pattern of anti-Asian politics.

One of those conditions is a "yellow peril" panic over Chinese nuclear motives and accompanying stereotypes of "perpetual foreigners" and "inscrutable Orientals," Asian American advocates say. This alarmist sentiment is encapsulated in a greatly publicized January 1999 report of the House committee on China-related national security headed by Congressman Christopher Cox. Hundreds of pages laden with more rhetoric than data paint a frightening picture of a Chinese nuclear threat and an ethnic group almost pathologically prone to spying. The report, Asian American advocates argue, is part of a wider trend in official anti-Asian attitudes legitimized by post-Cold War fretting over a remaining ideological foe and partisan efforts to exploit those worries. Only political sensationalism, Lee's supporters say, can explain the discrepancy between the severity of his imprisonment and the leniency of his release.

Reliance on government reports of a Chinese nuclear espionage problem helped The New York Times to shape initial perceptions of Lee as a serious spy suspect. In an explosive March 6, 1999, article, Times reporters James Risen and Jeff Gerth broke the story, not yet naming Lee but revealing that nuclear secrets had been stolen from the Los Alamos laboratory. They cited seemingly damning information based on government sources about Lee's activities that later turned out to be either untrue or reported in the wrong context, according to Lee's lawyers. (Information contained in that Times story is part of the basis for Lee's privacy suit against the government, which claims that personal information was illegally disclosed by officials and then made public.)

A Times editorial several weeks later complained that, despite FBI suspicions of Lee, he had for more than two years "maintained his top level security clearance, was assigned to highly sensitive weapons work and was even briefly allowed to employ a Chinese citizen as a research assistant." As if Lee's guilt were already a given, the editorial sniped that "FBI officials initially seemed more concerned with not tipping off their suspect to the investigation than they were with keeping him away from additional weapons secrets."

But even with Lee's release and his perceived, if not actual exoneration, Asian American advocates say the case has done little to change yellow-peril-colored attitudes that accompanied the investigation. Last Tuesday's edition of The New York Times, Berkeley's Wang says, demonstrated as much. An editorial raising concerns about racial profiling in the Lee case ran concurrently with a front-page story reviving alarm over China's possession of U.S. nuclear secrets (other publications, such as The Nation, have disputed that China enjoys this possession) and lamenting that the government was "Back to Square One" in finding the real spy.

"My God, they have not learned a thing," Wang says of the continuing China-fixated "witch hunt." In fact, the focus of considerable media and political commentary in the Lee deal's aftermath has not been racial bias, but rather the loss of months' worth of time in finding the true China agent. Such opinions have skewered officials not for manhandling Lee but for mishandling the earliest stages of investigating him. In some circles, news of the plea deal prompted criticism of Reno and the Justice Department for turning down an early FBI request to tap Lee's phone—a move that, despite its questionable constitutionality, could have saved the government face by keeping the investigation under the public radar.

Advocates this past Monday used a long-scheduled meeting with White House representatives at New York University Law School, initially meant for discussing Asian American social-service issues, to demand action on racial-profiling allegations in the Lee case. Yet many worry that an independent investigation or congressional probe could devolve into a partisan panic over strengthening national security rather than help to eliminate bias in counterintelligence operations. The same government bodies that might head the inquiry were only months ago engaged in hearings about Chinese nuclear espionage plots, using Lee as a prime example. Besides, Chin of CAA says, there is considerable doubt that a truly impartial investigator on the controversial matter could be found, or that such an investigator would be granted the authority to review confidential government information. Even in the hypothetical instance of an unbiased and thorough investigation, critics of the government say, real change would be impossible to implement in an essentially self-regulating counterintelligence establishment.

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