BEIJING -- Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said yesterday that Sino-American relations had been "victimized" by the partisan conflict in Washington and that the Chinese were smart enough to develop advanced weapons without having to steal technology from the United States.
In a nearly 90-minute news conference, Zhu also said that Americans upset with China's human rights record and allegations of spying are free to vent their anger at him when he visits the United States next month.
"China is fully capable of developing any military technology; it's only a matter of time," said Zhu, referring to recent allegations that China stole U.S. nuclear secrets from the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1980s. "My visit to the United States is to tell you the truth and let you vent your anger and your complaints."
Zhu's comments yesterday marked the highest-level Chinese response to allegations that China used information stolen from Los Alamos to build small nuclear warheads.
The technology would allow China to fire numerous warheads from a single missile at multiple targets. The charges surfaced about a week ago in the New York Times and have heightened debate over the Clinton administration's policy of engaging China.
Some Republican critics suggest that when the White House learned of the alleged theft in 1996, it responded slowly because of campaign contributions that may have come from the Chinese government. The Clinton administration has acknowledged that the leak seriously damaged U.S. security, but denied that it failed to respond properly.
Zhu pointed out yesterday that the alleged spy, a Taiwanese-born American scientist named Wen Ho Lee, was fired from the lab last week but has not been charged. The premier blamed the controversy on Washington politics.
"Sino-U.S. relations have been victimized by the internal struggle in the United States," Zhu said at the annual news conference after the end of China's legislative session.
In Washington yesterday, the CIA named retired Adm. David Jeremiah, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to review its damage assessment on how much nuclear weapons technology, if any, was lost to China from Los Alamos.
CIA Director George Tenet said Jeremiah will provide an independent review of the work being done by a multiagency intelligence team.
The damage assessment was ordered based on a classified report by a House select committee headed by Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of California. The report looked into a variety of charges that sensitive U.S. weapons technology has been leaked to China.
The Senate is holding hearings this week on the espionage case involving the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said yesterday that the espionage allegations are certain to come up during Zhu's visit "as part of the broad relationship we have with China."
"All of these issues will be on the table," Lockhart said. "This is an important issue and it's important we have addressed it the way we have."
Accusations of spying come at a tense time in relations between the world's largest country and its most powerful one. President Clinton's visit here in June seemed to promise an era of greater cooperation, but ties have frayed in recent months with the imprisonment of democratic activists and concerns about satellite technology transfers and the security of Taiwan.
The espionage charges have further strained relations.
The United States has proposed building a missile defense system to provide security for Japan and Taiwan. China's ability to fire multiple warheads could make missile defense more difficult. The United States, however, still has a staggering nuclear advantage over China.
During the news conference, the premier punctuated his comments with the candor, humor and Western references that have made him a refreshing contrast to more traditional Chinese leaders.
After saying Sino-American relations had been hurt by U.S. domestic politics, Zhu joked that he, too, had been victimized in a recent issue of Business Week. "On the cover of that magazine, my photo makes me look like a dead man," he said.
In discussing the recent failure of one of China's financial trusts, Zhu alluded to Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." He said the government would not make it easy for other trusts to declare bankruptcy.
"Of course nowadays, if one fails to repay the debt, you will not face the risk of sacrificing one pound of flesh," Zhu said. "But even so, the creditor banks will not let you go so easily."
On the sensitive subject of human rights, Zhu said he had been fighting for democracy and freedom against the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalists, when Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was a schoolgirl.
Albright spent part of her brief visit here earlier this month complaining about China's human rights record and urging the authoritarian regime to release dissidents recently jailed for trying to form China's first opposition party.
In his glib comments, Zhu seemed to ignore Albright's personal history. Of Jewish descent, Albright was whisked out Czechoslovakia by her parents before the age of 2 and lost more than a dozen family members to the century's worst human rights abusers -- the Nazis.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 3/16/99