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Report: China Pilfered Photonics

Photonics Spectra
Jul 1999
Robert C. Pini

The Chinese government has been using scientists and business owners to acquire photonics military technology for more than a decade, according to the findings of a six-month congressional committee investigation into the transfer of sensitive technology from the US to the People's Republic of China.

The report says Chinese technology policy focused on acquiring photonics technologies such as optoelectronics for military information systems, image processing for weather forecasting, laser spectroscopy for weapons, optoelectronic materials, and laser weapons and pulse power techniques.

According to the report, the most serious technology losses have come as a part of the commercial, scientific and academic interactions between the two countries rather than through classic intelligence activities. The report concluded that the Chinese government has targeted American technology through academic exchanges, third-country deals, and interests in and joint ventures with US technology companies including "front companies."

For example:
  • Peter Lee, a Taiwanese-born, naturalized US citizen working at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, passed classified research to China in 1985 (how to create miniature nuclear explosions using lasers) and in 1997 (techniques to detect nuclear submarines).
  • A former Chinese philosophy professor, Bin Wu, was convicted in 1993 of smuggling third-generation night-vision equipment through Hong Kong. He had acquired the technology through several small front companies based in Norfolk, Va.
The committee's report said it is clear that US export control policy ("corporate self-policing") does not work and instead has facilitated China's efforts to obtain militarily useful technology, including photonics. It recommends that officials examine the security risks from scientific exchange programs between Chinese scientists and researchers from the US national laboratories. It further suggests making it more difficult to export technologies deemed "of greatest national security concern" while clarifying and streamlining export control requirements for other technologies.

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