20 January 2002
China finds spy bugs in Jiang's Boeing jet
By Damien McElroy and David Wastell in Washington
China claims to have found almost 30 surveillance bugs, including one in the headboard of the presidential bed, on a Boeing 767 that had just been delivered from America to serve as President Jiang Zemin's official aircraft.
The aircraft has been sitting on a military airstrip north of Beijing, unused with much of its upholstery and many of its fittings ripped out, since October when Chinese test pilots detected a strange and unfamiliar whine emanating from its body.
A search of the twin-engined aircraft, which was manufactured and fitted out in America, yielded 27 devices, according to Chinese officials, hidden in its seats, lavatory and panelling.
Beijing believes that the bugs were planted by the Central Intelligence Agency while the aircraft was undergoing conversion work in San Antonio, Texas.
The CIA refused to respond to the report. Bill Harlow, the spy agency's spokesman, said: "We never comment on allegations like these, as a matter of policy." The White House used almost identical words, saying: "We never discuss these types of allegations."
The aircraft was built by Boeing but was delivered to Delta Air Lines in June 2000 before being resold to China United Airlines, the air force-run airline that ordered the aircraft. It was customised for the Chinese president by the San Antonio-based company.
Members of a team of Chinese officials who supervised the construction of the aircraft have since been detained. A total of 22 people are being held in connection with the case and one senior air force official is believed to be under house arrest.
News of the discovery threatens to ignite an embarrassing controversy just as President George W. Bush prepares to visit China for a summit next month. Mr Jiang is reportedly furious and could use the incident to deflect attention from other issues, such as human rights or state persecution of Christians.
Bush administration officials had been quietly expressing delight that relations with China had thawed markedly since the two countries agreed on co-operation against terrorism after the September 11 attacks in America. There was talk of intelligence sharing between the CIA and its Chinese counterparts on Islamic terrorism.
The two men have, however, already held a cordial summit, in October, since the devices were found.
American espionage activity targeted at Chinese officials has become a persistent sore in bilateral relations, particularly since a US military spyplane made an emergency landing in Hainan Island last year after a collision with a Chinese aircraft.
Officials of the shadowy Third Department of the People's Liberation Army general staff believe that the devices, which are not available commercially, are capable of communicating with American military satellites.
One Western diplomat said that behind the outrage the Chinese were likely to view the devices as an intelligence windfall. Army scientists will now have the opportunity to "reverse engineer" the latest in American surveillance equipment.
The grounding of the aircraft has denied the Communist leadership the pleasure of using an aircraft so well-appointed that Mr Bush's Air Force One is said to be a "plain Jane" by comparison.
One hundred officials can be carried in comfort in its wide beige leather chairs, which fold out into beds for long-haul flights. In the presidential suite a bath was installed and a television with a 48-inch screen stood at the end of the bed.