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China Keeps Lid on Plane Bugs

Asia: An apparent media blackout tells analysts that the allegations about Jiang's U.S.-made aircraft reflected badly on the leader.

January 23, 2002|ANTHONY KUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — China enforced a strict silence domestically about the reported bugging of its U.S.-made presidential plane Tuesday but indicated that it won't let the allegations get in the way of an upcoming visit by President Bush.

"I don't see this affair having an impact on any other issues," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said.

He would neither confirm nor deny reports last week by the Washington Post and London-based Financial Times that Chinese authorities had found more than 20 eavesdropping devices in the upholstery of a Boeing 767 that had been luxuriously customized in the United States for President Jiang Zemin.

"China is a peace-loving nation that doesn't pose a threat to anyone. It is completely unnecessary to eavesdrop on China," Sun told reporters at a routine news briefing.

An apparent blackout continued in China's state-owned media, with censors quickly deleting postings about the reports in Internet chat rooms.

"Please maintain order and do not discuss the bugging incident," wrote the chat room monitor of the Strong Country Forum Web site, which is maintained by the Communist Party-controlled People's Daily newspaper.

Analysts generally agree that the bugging reports reflected badly on Jiang.

Jiang's "sweet dream of riding China's first presidential plane may have evaporated before his retirement--no wonder he was infuriated," said a signed commentary in the independent Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao this week.

Before retiring next year, Jiang is expected to designate his successor at a key Communist Party Congress this fall. Some analysts believe that Jiang's critics leaked the alleged bugging to reporters.

Most observers point to several possible explanations for the official silence on the incident:

* According to the reports, China detained several military officials for questioning in the case, raising the embarrassing possibility that official negligence or corruption was involved. The plane was reportedly outfitted in the United States under the constant watch of Chinese security personnel.

* Because the bugs were reportedly discovered before Jiang used the plane, China may have averted security leaks while reaping a potential intelligence windfall in the miniature satellite-activated eavesdropping devices.

* With anti-graft regulations barring officials from even riding in imported cars, accounts of the president spending millions on a luxury U.S. jet could irk Chinese taxpayers.

"Any way you look at it, it doesn't make them look good," one veteran China watcher said.

Analysts also agree that both countries want Bush's upcoming visit to Beijing, postponed after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, to capitalize on improving bilateral relations and a common cause in the war on terrorism.

The symbolism of the visit's timing could hardly be more upbeat: Bush is scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Feb. 21, 30 years to the day after President Nixon's historic trip that led to the establishment of U.S. diplomatic relations with Communist China.

"Jiang Zemin is at that point in his term where he's thinking about his legacy," said Steven Goldstein, a China expert at Smith College in Massachusetts. "And he wants his legacy to be closely associated with improved ties with the U.S."

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