As China ramps up its space program in a bid to catch the United States, Washington is taking pains to make sure that it is not helping China along in that quest.
In the same week as China prepared to conduct its first spacewalk, a Chinese-American scientist found himself under scrutiny by the U.S. government. The case is the latest in a series of heightened efforts by the Justice Department to clamp down on the leakage of technology and sensitive information to China.
Last Wednesday, the FBI arrested Shu Quansheng, a Shanghai-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, for allegedly exporting rocket technology to China and trying to bribe Chinese officials. The head of a high-tech firm in Virginia, Shu is an expert in cryogenics, the science of very low temperatures and their effect on materials; in particular, he has studied liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, which are used to power space launches. The arms charges carry sentences up to 10 years, and the bribery charge can warrant up to five years.
The government has attempted to crack down on what it says is an escalation of espionage activities on behalf of China. The Justice Department last fall unveiled a “counter-proliferation initiative” to combat the export of sensitive and dual-use technology to countries such as China and Iran. Since 2006, the government has prosecuted at least 20 cases involving the sharing of sensitive information or technology, from aircraft parts to warship design, with China, according to Justice Department data.
The affidavit filed by prosecutors said Shu was not involved with China’s latest Shenzhou 7 mission, which landed in Inner Mongolia on Sunday after completing the country’s first spacewalk on Saturday. The Energy Department and NASA have made million-dollar grants to Shu’s company, Virginia-based AMAC International, for work on cryogenic technology.
In a high-profile case in 1999, Taiwanese-American weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee, also a naturalized U.S. citizen, was charged with spying for China. Lee, who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory until the controversy led to his departure, was acquitted of the spying charges and eventually obtained a $1.6 million settlement from the U.S. government and five media organizations after he filed a civil suit.
The U.S. will need to balance national security concerns against the values of academic freedom. Some have criticized U.S. policies for being too permissive, such as allowing the sale of civilian aircraft to China, while others caution that a crackdown should not impinge on cross-border sharing of scholarly work.