- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2000

If dining on fish-bladder soup and the family dog is your idea of a gourmet meal, you might want a shot of Bill Cohen standing in his private office in his BVDs, dressing for dinner.

But that's not what Xinhua News Agency's purchase of a headquarters building overlooking the Pentagon is really all about.

It's true, of course, that the sight lines from the sixth and seventh floors of the Arlington Ridge Apartments offer an unobstructed view of the defense secretary's office, and sophisticated electronic-snooping technology could figure out a lot of things going on in the outside ring of the Pentagon, where Mr. Cohen and the biggies of the Defense Department conduct the planning and execution of the nation's defenses.

But what Beijing wants is not necessarily to snoop (though that, too), but to measure the steel, if any, in the Clinton administration's backbone, and the rigor, if any, in the congressional kidney.

The revelation that the Chinese had bought the building to house its state-owned news agency, which is not so much a news-gathering operation as a collection agency for the national secrets of others, irritated the Chinese, but did not embarrass them. Beijing, having bought a trade agreement with effusive promises, is merely testing to see what it could get by with, to see whether Congress will allow them to trash the promises they made to get what they want.

The law is clear that the U.S. government must approve any expansion of the diplomatic mission. Here's a spokesman for State, not your usual China basher or someone who likes to make it tough on foreign diplomats:

"The Embassy of the People's Republic of China is required under the Foreign Missions Act to obtain prior authorization from the State Department for any purchase or sales of real property of the Xinhua News Agency. The embassy was notified of this in 1985.

"The department has no record of it providing notification of its plans to purchase the Virginia property or of the department granting authorization. The department is in contact with the Chinese government regarding this issue to assure that all appropriate interests are addressed."

That seems clear enough in English, and no doubt clear in Mandarin or whatever spoken dialect the embassy may require. The embassy put the blame on its American lawyers. "We don't need permission," said an embassy spokesman, smugly. "We have been following the laws and regulations of the United States. If something is wrong, the lawyers should know that."

This is the arrogant way the mainland Chinese think. They know better than their hosts what the law is. They know better than their hosts when the law of their hosts is satisfied. No regret, no chagrin, no concession that maybe there was a misunderstanding. Indeed, the unauthorized expansion of the Chinese diplomatic mission, first revealed in the pages of this newspaper, was an occasion of high old times at Xinhua.

"This morning all our staff members read the story," said the bureau chief of the agency. "They're laughing at it."

There's not much laughter at State, which usually looks for reasons not to worry. The China hands there know that Xinhua, which operates a hundred news bureaus around the world, is not the Associated Press or United Press International, collecting the news without fear or favor and passing on information for the interpretation and analysis of others. Xinhua's correspondents collect information for the Beijing government. Xinhua's last president, who died of "an undisclosed illness" last week, was a member of the Communist Party's powerful Central Committee.

The government in Beijing monitors Xinhua closely. Three years ago, Wei Guoqiang, 47, the chief of Xinhua's Washington bureau, put out feelers that he wanted to defect to the United States. He died shortly afterward, of "suicide."

China gets technology the old-fashioned way. It steals it. The bipartisan Cox Committee, commissioned by the House to find out what was going on, concluded that Beijing relies on nearly all its government agencies to obtain crucial information, any way it can.

Some House Republicans made noises yesterday that Beijing should be held accountable for obeying U.S. law. Such noise usually means a Republican retreat is imminent.

But Rep. David Vitter of Louisiana, who prepared an amendment to a foreign-operations budget bill that would prevent Xinhua from moving into Arlington Ridge Apartments, and Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference, who demanded that the administration block the sale, are not the usual wimps. We'll see.

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