Did China Steal America’s Stealth Technology?

A brief interlude here as I’d like to comment on a great blog post by the folks over at Wired writing for their excellent blog Danger Room.  They have an entry up asking if the recently revealed J-20 stealth fighter incorporates stolen American stealth technology.

The post takes us back 1999 when the Yugoslavian defense forces managed to shoot down a F-117 Stealth fighter, an incredibly lucky event.  According to Wired, there were reports of Chinese agents immediately scouring the country for pieces of the plane, buying them up from farmers who had recovered them.  Several pieces ended up in a Belgrade museum whose curators insist hasn’t seen suspicious activity or visits.  Wired discusses how the technology was already fairly mature, how the F-117 was eventually retired in short order, and how the J-20 doesn’t look very much like the F-117.

Probably not much copying going on here they tell us.

I tend to agree, but for different reasons.  The fighter was shot down at the end of March (the 27th) and a month later, on May 7, the United States accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.  Most Americans wouldn’t even remember this but almost all Chinese remember and as an expat living in the country at the time, it is impossible to forget.

The Chinese went crazy.

Immediately, demonstrations erupted across the country, but particularly in Beijing, Chengdu, and Guanzhou whose cities had consulates or embassies.  American personnel, including ambassador James Sasser, were trapped inside the Beijing embassy.  Rioters attempted to burn down both the Chengdu and Guanzhou consulates.  The United States and NATO immediately released an apology and circulated the fact that they were attempting to hit a Yugoslavian warehouse nearby that looked similar, but bizarrely, these apologies were not allowed to be immediately rebroadcast in China.

This was China.  You don’t get to demonstrate or riot without the government allowing it to happen.  There were reports of students being bussed in by the government to the US embassy to let loose their anger.  It was declared to be unsafe for Americans to be out in public, the first time this had ever happened nationwide for US Nationals since China reopened in 1980.  International schools and companies closed.  We were told to stay inside and not go out for any reason.

For Americans living in China, it was an incredibly surprising incident, and I managed to get involved in one of the scariest situations I’ve experienced overseas by ignoring the warning and venturing out to see what was going on.  While most of the world is annoyed by America today, in the late nineties, particularly in Asia, Americans were extremely popular.  Everyone in China loved Clinton, his policies, our economy, everything.  It was almost inconceivable that Americans could be bothered out in the streets of China.

Some pundits explained the riots by saying the Chinese government was concerned that repressing the students would cause them to get out of control, but this doesn’t jive with how China normally views demonstrations. The crux of the issue was that China was ultimately convinced that the bombing was not intentional.  But why would the US bomb an embassy?  What could we hope to gain?

In the aftermath, strange facts emerged.  George Tenet testified that the Belgrade strike was the only one of that war directed by the CIA.  I heard from two different American personnel involved in the military that it wasn’t an accident, and these rumors are still prevalent today.  Another source testified that CIA maps correctly identified the Chinese embassy, which seemed to debunk the flawed cartography defense that was the official US explanation of the incident.  An in-depth investigation conduced by Danish Newspaper Politiken and the UK Observer turned up even more inconsistencies.  And there was still China jumping up and down that it wasn’t an accident for no apparent reason.

Eventually, the link seemed to become clear: China had been gathering stealth fighter pieces, boxing them up, and were preparing to send them back for analysis.  The United States’ message to China was clear: welcome to the NFL, and don’t mess with our technology in our warzone. As I said earlier, I agree with Wired that China never got those stealth parts, just for different reasons.

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