Bugs On Jiang's Plane? Shush

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When President Bush heads to Beijing next week, all the persistent U.S.-China hot points--human rights, arms proliferation, Tibet, Taiwan--are sure to arise. But the potentially explosive issue of the 27 surveillance devices found over the bed and in the bathroom of Chinese President Jiang Zemin's American-made and -outfitted personal jet may not even be raised. First reported last month, the presence of the bugs has elicited almost no reaction on either side, prompting speculation among China watchers as to why Jiang, who aggressively vied to win diplomatic concessions after the Sino-U.S. spy-plane incident last spring, has kept this one under wraps. "I'm interested in the dog that didn't bark here," says James Mulvenon, a China analyst at Rand Corp. "Both sides want the trip to go well so badly that they're willing to weather this storm."

China's muted response adds to the mystery of why the story was leaked in the first place. Here's what is known: Back in 2000, Jiang ordered a $120 million Boeing 767 to serve as China's Air Force One. The decision to buy an American plane earned him criticism at home, in online chat rooms and on university campuses. When the bugging story broke in the Western press--the sources apparently were Chinese military officers--Jiang's embarrassing little plane problem suddenly became a mortifying security debacle. During the entire refitting in San Antonio, Texas, the plane was guarded by no fewer than 20 People's Liberation Army soldiers. "If the P.L.A. allowed the bugging to happen, they failed on a massive level," says a Western military attache in Beijing. But the incident may be more about corruption than ineptitude. The military sources who leaked the story claim that the Chinese side siphoned off $20 million in the deal.

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There may be another motivation for Jiang to keep quiet. The Chinese President, who is due to retire later this year, seems to be counting on Beijing's vastly improved international ties as a key part of his personal legacy. An 11th-hour flare-up with Washington wouldn't help that effort and could risk backfiring. Says Wu Guoguang, a political-science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong: "Every time Sino-American relations dip, Jiang ends up looking dumb." So who's stirring the pot? It may be China's hard-liners, particularly in the military and security apparatus, who are more skeptical than Jiang of improved ties with the U.S. Leaking the bugging story on the eve of Bush's visit might have been aimed at keeping Jiang from getting too cozy with the very people who may have tried to spy on him. Of course there's one other, contradictory theory--that the leak happened with Jiang's approval, as a way to gain leverage on contentious issues in the coming summit. Either way, the deep-rooted differences between China and the U.S. will probably prove far peskier to resolve than the bugging incident did.