Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 17

By William C. Triplett II

At the most important defense show in the Middle East, a major American company was demonstrating its missile defense plans and achievements using a VCR and a large TV monitor. Waiting until the lunch hour, when the American exhibit was down to one person, a two-man Chinese team saw their opportunity and took it. The first got in the American’s face and distracted him with technical questions in broken English. While this was going on, the other hit the “Eject” button on the VCR, dropped the tape into a plastic bag and disappeared into the crowd.

At the same event, a second two-man Chinese team hit another American defense firm. This time it was after the technical specifications of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, especially the turret. Here there was no videotape, only a model too big to steal. Again they waited until the American exhibit was down to one person and, again, the first agent concentrated on distracting the American exhibitor. The second agent, evidently a technical artist, quickly took pictures of the model and then produced an amazingly accurate drawing of the turret workings. Specialists at the show speculated that the operation might be related to a flaw in China’s most modern tank: Under excessive heat conditions, such as the Sindh Desert in Pakistan, the turrets of Chinese tanks freeze as the steel expands. In modern warfare, a tank whose turret won’t revolve is a dead tank. As demonstrated in the Gulf War, American turrets revolve in any kind of weather.

Two American companies were victimized. Neither lodged an official complaint–too much China business for that. They did quietly pass word to Washington. Two stories went into the expanding folklore of Chinese collection efforts.

That was 1997. Now fast-forward five years to July 2002 and the Farnborough Air Show south of London. A former RAF base and the sometime headquarters of British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), Farnborough will be the largest aerospace show this year.

Watching the comrade collectors working Farnborough, words such as “massive,” “thorough,” “organized” and “blatant” come to mind. A rough guess would be perhaps 300 individuals were involved. No more technical artist drawings. Now everyone has a digital still or movie camera hung around his or her neck. A few individuals operated alone but mostly it was a team effort–two, three, four, even five people, all under an obvious team leader, a man or woman in his or her 50s. This was serious business—no one in his 20s was observed.

The Chinese collection teams seem to be broken down into five categories:

–Senior military