Lee panel addresses Asian stereotypes

by Kathleen McDermott | 11/10/00 6:00am

From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to scheming Japanese businessmen in Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun," a negative light has often been cast on Asians in America.

Such stereotypes have fueled civil rights violations throughout U.S. history -- highlighted most recently by the trial of Wen Ho Lee in the Los Alamos debacle -- were the focus of a well-attended panel discussion at the Rockefeller Center Wednesday evening.

Lee, a Chinese-American research scientist, was employed at Los Alamos until accusations of spying for the Chinese mushroomed into massive investigative reporting by The New York Times and nine months of solitary confinement for Lee.

History, government and science experts came together to discuss not only the racial profiling many feel was at the heart of the trial, but also the broader issues of foreign policy and nuclear safety the trial raised.

With many panel attendees unfamiliar with the case, the discussion began with a delineation of the case's five-year history.

In the fall of 1995, concerned that China had gained access to classified nuclear weapons information, the U.S. Department of Energy's Director of Intelligence began investigations.

As investigations proceeded, a list of 130 employees -- those with both access to the information and recent travels to China -- was compiled, panelist Lewis Duncan, Thayer Engineering School Dean, said.

Honing in on these employees, nine suspects -- including three Asian-Americans -- were named, based on anomalies in personnel records.

As investigations proceeded along quietly, classified information concerning the investigation leaked into the press, beginning the March 1999 "witch hunt" intent on identifying the spy, Duncan said.

Singled out for blame by The New York Times, Wen Ho Lee became the top suspect in a much-bungled legal case, Duncan said.

According to Duncan, the case drew much attention to security precautions at scientific facilities such as Los Alamos.

This tension between maintaining national security while allowing a free intellectual dialogue within the international science community was a key issue raised by the case, panelist David Kang, a government professor, said.

Seeing the need for less emphasis on security measures and more on openness and collaboration, panelist Zhang Chunbai, a Dartmouth medical student of Chinese origin, emphasized that "technology and research projects no longer come with a clear national boarder."

While many fear heightened security measures and greater curtailment of intellectual freedom will drive away top researchers, aspiring scientist Tracy Kim '02 was actually surprised to hear how lax security had been, and does not doubt security will become much more stringent.

But although more stringent security procedures may be well-justified, the handling of the Wen Ho Lee case troubled many, raising concerns of racial profiling of Asian-Americans.

Lee's trial was one of innuendo and not due process of law, panelist Vernon Takeshita, a professor of history, said.

Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement before pleading guilty to only one of the many felony charges brought against him, Takeshita said.

Moreover, this is not the first encounter Asian-Americans have had with unproven guilt, which stems from negative stereotypes with a long history, Takeshita said.

"Try to see the case in the broader constitution questions on due process," Takeshita said. "Would the same standard be held to non-Chinese?"

The racial profiling used to single out Lee "raises a lot of red flags," according to Asian and Asian-American Student Advisor Nora Yasumura.

"Guilty or not, he was treated unfairly," Yasumura said, who sees parallels between Lee's solitary confinement and her father's experience in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Such a clear violation of civil rights highlights the difficulty Asians in America often face, continually perceived as foreign and still tied to Asia, Yasumura said.

The damage is already being seen, Zhang said, with not a single Chinese applicant this year for Los Alamos's prestigious yearly fellowship, one usually attracting many promising Chinese scientists.

However, Kim did not see the case as one of merely clear-cut racial profiling, and enjoyed hearing the various panelists debate the issue.

Although the case's historical context and its relation to Asian-American discrimination was important to Joyce Lee '01, she sees the case as relating to many broader issues as well.

According to Jordyne Wu '03, although the case has mobilized few Asian-Americans to action, it raises important questions for future U.S. foreign policy.

While politicians could continue beefing up national security and the nuclear arsenal, the United States could also take an approach of demilitarization and globalization, Wu said.

And with no evidence that China is building up nuclear weapons, the main problem the country faces is one of "too many secrets," according to panelist William Arkin, a Washington Post columnist.

As Arkin sees it, the real threat is not spies or the Chinese, but those who want more secrets and more nuclear weapons.