U.S. Ousts Two Chinese Envoys for Espionage
In the first case of its kind to come to light since China and the United States restored diplomatic relations in 1979, the State Department said Wednesday that two Chinese diplomats have been asked to leave the country after engaging in what U.S. officials say was espionage.
The two diplomats were “caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” a U.S. official said. One of the men was detained here last week after he accepted what he believed were classified National Security Agency documents from an FBI agent working undercover.
Officially, the two Chinese officials were asked to leave for what State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley termed “activities incompatible with their diplomatic status,” a phrase commonly applied to spying. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that one of the officials left the country Dec. 24 and the other Dec. 27.
The Chinese Embassy here denied that any of its diplomats had departed on orders from the State Department. But an embassy spokesman said two diplomats, whom he identified as assistant military attache Hou Desheng and Zhang Weichu, a consular officer at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, have “left for China after finishing their tenure in the United States.”
The case reflects increasing concern of U.S. officials about the growing scope of Chinese intelligence-gathering operations in the United States. Last October, in a speech to a group of former intelligence agents, James H. Geer, the FBI’s assistant director for intelligence, said Chinese agents in this country have come to pose nearly as great a problem for United States counterintelligence as agents from Soviet Bloc countries.
“If a grain of sand were a piece of information, the Soviets would bring a submarine offshore in the dead of the night and send a dinghy with men in it dressed in dark wet suits who would fill a bucket of sand and go back to the submarine and steal away in the dead of the night,” Geer said.
“The Chinese, on the other hand, would send 100,000 bathers to the beach in broad daylight and during the course of the day, each bather would pick up one grain of sand and bring it home with him. . . . That’s pretty much what’s happening.”
Two years ago, Larry Wu-tai Chin, a Chinese-American who had worked for the CIA for three decades, was arrested and convicted of espionage for passing classified national security documents to China. Chin later committed suicide in his jail cell.
Although this is the first case to come to light involving espionage by a Chinese diplomat assigned to the United States, U.S. officials acknowledge that there has been at least one such case involving a Chinese diplomat assigned to the United Nations.
Disclosed by Newspaper
U.S. officials also acknowledge that they originally sought to avoid any public disclosure of the State Department’s action against the Chinese diplomats, which was taken Dec. 22. But news of the action was published by the conservative-oriented Washington Times, and the State Department subsequently confirmed its action Wednesday.
One U.S. official familiar with intelligence matters said China and the United States have an understanding that allows for each other’s diplomats to be asked to leave quickly and quietly if they are caught in improper activities. This official would not say how many other Chinese diplomats have departed from the United States or how many American diplomats have left China under this agreement.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman said that “since the establishment of Sino-U.S. relations (in 1979), we have not heard of any U.S. diplomat in China who has been declared persona non grata ,” the official action through which a government requires a diplomat of another country to depart. The spokesman did not respond to a question about whether any American diplomats have been asked by the Chinese government to leave China.
Not Declared Unacceptable
At the State Department, Oakley stressed that the two diplomats had not been declared persona non grata . There was no need to do so because of China’s prompt agreement to withdraw the two diplomats, she said.
Times staff writers Norman Kempster and James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.