SCMP Tuesday, April 17, 2001
US hypocrisy blurs the truth
Wang Wei is an American-style hero, but most Americans don't know that yet. It's not surprising that United States government agencies aren't saying so because the doomed pilot single-handedly caused a treasure trove of US surveillance secrets to land in China, and it's not surprising that China is treating him as a loyal poster boy, because the ageing Communist Party is desperately seeking heroes who excite the imagination.
Any remotely neutral commentary ought to take into account China's reasonable desire not to be so flagrantly spied upon. The hypocrisy of the US stance deems invasive prying and snooping on others to be "routine" and legal, but outrageous if committed against the US. After all, nothing akin to the spy plane would be allowed anywhere close to US shores.
It's hard to understand why civil libertarians and freedom lovers have been bending over backwards to dismiss as "routine" the awesome surveillance of just about anything that makes noise or moves on the entire east coast of China, given the troubling, chilling precedent that such invasive bugging has for free expression in America itself. And though the spy flights may be frequent, like muggings and rapes in a big city, that hardly makes them routine or harmless.
The media in Hong Kong should be especially sceptical about US surveillance sweeps since the technologically awesome spy in the sky is also capable of monitoring Hong Kong communications, including faxes, e-mails and phone calls along with everything else electronic that is sucked up along the Chinese coast.
China's military response has, if anything, been thoughtful and restrained. Each time a pilot has intercepted hostile US craft, permission to shoot has been denied by controllers on the ground. Vehemently aware the US has a double standard on spy flights, China's air force has been employing hotdog flying tactics and psychological intimidation to nudge the US spy planes away from China's shores. Beijing's policy of barking loudly but not biting has apparently failed to impress the US side which continues, undeterred, to assert its "right" to engage in spy flights.
China's aggressive intercepts of US spy flights are risky - to its own pilots most of all - but they stem from a rational policy designed to give China some breathing room without engaging in actual combat. The Soviets were so vigilant about their air space that they not only downed numerous spy flights such as Gary Powers in his U-2 in 1960, but cruelly shot from the sky a commercial airliner in 1983, as Korean Air 007 was apparently mistaken for a US spy craft lurking along Russia's far eastern coast at the time. The unlucky Iranian passenger jet downed by trigger-happy American sailors in the Persian Gulf in July 1988 - killing all 290 people on board - was nowhere near American shores, but it got hit with as much humanitarian forethought as a blinking target in a video game.
In this 50th anniversary year of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, it is worth recalling that America was not always an awesome superpower and was once the victim of deadly surveillance and destruction from the skies. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's strategically brilliant attack would not have been possible without maps and information garnered from surveillance, including photos snapped during tourist flights over the Hawaiian Islands.
Thailand-based writer Harold Stephens has just published in the Bangkok Post a glowing profile of Nobuo Fujita, the only Japanese World War II pilot to actually bomb the US mainland. Fujita's remarkable feat is a tale of extraordinary technical prowess and individual pluck, in which a small collapsible Zero-type reconnaissance plane was assembled and launched from the roof of a Japanese I-25 submarine for secret missions. The pontoon-equipped plane then returned to the mother ship and was packed up back on board, allowing pilot and plane to disappear beneath the waves.
The homely spy plane flew 240 kilometres per hour, sometimes skimming the backs of mountains or the water's surface to avoid detection. Fujita ran surveillance missions over enemy ports, including Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland and Pearl Harbour.
Catapulted off the submarine in the dead of night on September 9, 1942, Fujita flew to the Oregon coast. The two bombs he dropped resulted in no human casualties, although some squirrels may have been hit, the target being the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. The fact that Japan's hand had reached across the Pacific was ruthlessly covered up during the war; so much so that the four known American eye-witnesses to Fujita's flight were dismissed as cranks, as if they had spotted a flying saucer.
If it all sounds quaint in retrospect, it's in part due to the passage of time, and because Americans no longer view Japan as an enemy, making it possible to objectively appreciate Fujita's achievement as a brave individual.
Now that the Hainan 24 are safely back in the "land of the free", the red, white and blue media is in a perfect position to stop blurring the truth with trivial stories about the hardships of surveillance technologists eating Chinese food three times a day without access to American sports scores and focus on the real story, which is the demand of an up-and-coming world power to be treated with reciprocity and respect.
If Wang's passport had been blue with a gold eagle embossed on the front, there's little doubt the US media would have made an instant hero of him, a courageous David against a hulking Goliath. His pluck, even recklessness would be admired, and the finality of his self-sacrifice would move many to tears. Cowboy pilots excite the US imagination, as long as they are on the right side. Whether it be World War II pilots who outfoxed the Nazis, or celluloid heroes in such Hollywood box office hits as Star Wars, Top Gun and Independence Day, Americans love a wiseguy hero and the daring Wang is very much in this tradition.
The ability of Americans to appreciate Wang's attitude and patriotism depends in part on the courage of the American media to look at things, if only briefly, from China's point of view, dropping the jingoistic talk and veiled threats of retaliation. Willingness to pursue this and other politically hot stories without reference to knee-jerk nationalism is a victory for the "free" press not just because taking all sides into account is more nuanced than one-dimensional state propaganda, but more importantly because seeking the truth requires nothing less.
Philip Cunningham (
) has been a regular visitor to China since 1983 .