- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

International crises involving China, planes and spying have become quite familiar to the American people. But what about incidents that involve all these elements, minus the international crisis? Surely, these are less familiar. But such an incident was disclosed last month and, according to an article yesterday in The Washington Times, it exposes the underbelly of Chinese political intrigue.
Last fall, the Chinese government discovered 27 listening devices onboard a presidential jet outfitted by U.S. firms at the San Antonio International Airport, shortly before Chinese President Jiang Zemin was to set off on his maiden voyage aboard the craft. These state-of-the-art devices were sure to pick up some interesting dialogue, since some were placed in the headboard of the president's bed and in his bathroom. According to Beijing, the Chinese were alerted to the presence of these devices after one of them emitted some static noise.
Yesterday's article in The Times disclosed that Mr. Jiang believes a fellow Communist Party Politburo member, Li Peng, is behind the bugs, according to a classified State Department intelligence report. The disclosure of the classified report is quite timely, since President Bush leaves today for a trip to China, Japan and South Korea. Bill Gertz reported in The Times that, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Mr. Jiang appears convinced that Mr. Li ordered the bugging to listen in on the president's potential discussions of financial corruption linked to Mr. Li's wife and children.
And there is plenty of reason for Mr. Li to feel particularly tense at this time: This fall, China will hold its Communist Party Congress, during which Mr. Jiang, Mr. Li and Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji are expected to resign and successors will be chosen.
Since the reports of the bugging were leaked, China's response toward the United States has been quite muted, even though Beijing initially believed Washington was behind the eavesdropping. But when asked last month about the report regarding the listening devices, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi downplayed the incident and said, "I have also heard this news, but at present I have no knowledge of this, and don't see any impact of this event on other issues."
Beijing's sober reaction is refreshing. Even though Chinese officials monitored the jet's refitting around the clock, Beijing certainly had the opportunity to look askance at Washington and try to leverage the situation to put the White House in an appeasing mood in time for Mr. Bush's trip. Also surprising are Chinese press accounts in recent weeks regarding corruption among Chinese leaders and their relatives, one of which alleges that Mr. Li's wife and son had used political connections to help a Chinese power company. And Beijing has been fairly open about arrests it has made in the wake of the discovery of the bugs on the president's plane. Twenty Chinese air force officers and two officials from China Air Supply Import & Export Corp., who oversaw the plane's modifications, are being detained and investigated for negligence and corruption.
So this spy-plane incident doesn't seem to have the potential to roil U.S.-Chinese relations. Back in April, when a U.S. surveillance plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island after a mid-air collision, Beijing was less conciliatory. This time, Washington can take a back seat and watch the political manuevering in China, which is sure to get increasingly interesting.

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