I’ve never been much for conspiracy theories. Not that I don’t like a touch of the fantastic in my daily life (I live in China, after all). But when you think about the sheer logistics involved in most of the major conspiracy theories things start to break down pretty quickly.
Consider that old favorite of the tinfoil hat brigade, that NASA faked the American moon landings, and think about what it would have required. It’s not just the fakery of the photographs and video, but also that everyone who worked on all the aspects of the fakery, from the astronauts to the guys who would have had to doctor the photos and fake the moon rocks and telemetry (depending upon whether you think mission control was in on it or not) would have had to keep their mouths shut. For going on 45 years. For six successful lunar landings involving eighteen astronauts, twelve of whom have allegedly walked on the moon. Not only does everyone who knows about the fraud have to keep his mouth shut, but everyone who has a public face has to keep his story aligned. Especially that attention-junkie Aldrin. It only takes one person to blow the lid off, intentionally or accidentally. Frankly, it’s just easier to go to the goddamned moon.
I’m not particularly interested in getting into a pissing match with conspiracy theorists (like thermonuclear war, it’s not “winnable” in the conventional sense of the word), so much as I am in setting up a problem. Coverups pose similar problems to conspiracies in that, like a big pile of sweaty dynamite, they are unstable by nature and easily detonated, sometimes by the tiniest of disturbances. That’s why they don’t tend to make good PR strategy.
Of course, by definition no one knows when a coverup succeeds. Small ones involving one or two people? Probably a fair number. Big ones involving lots of people and big stakes? Not so many, I’d guess. “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, perhaps optimistically. In most cases, the participants aren’t Navy Seals or the CIA or other kinds of people who are indoctrinated and trained into cultures of secrecy (and yet still sometimes blow it). We’re talking about just folks who are easily pressured by law enforcement, or who just get drunk on lychee martinis at Centro and shoot off their mouths. Sooner or later someone is going to slip up and the dynamite is going to blow.
Then everyone in serious trouble because, as the old truism goes, the coverup is worse than the crime. Technically, it’s more accurate to say that the coverup significantly aggravates the crime. Coverups turn mistakes into crimes and crimes into enormities. Think of the devastation inflicted on Penn State by the recently published Freeh inquiry, which was most damning for revealing the efforts taken to protect the institution over the victims. Or think of your own toddler, if you have one. If he uses a sharpie to draw all over the wallpaper, you’re angry. If he lies about it, well, then you’re disappointed. Anger is over in minutes. Disappointment leads to years of therapy and careers in bitter standup comedy.
A big pile of sweaty dynamite might be blowing up in the face of Chinese telecoms equipment company ZTE right now. The fuse was lit by a Reuters report back in March (blocked in China), which showed how ZTE was acting as a middleman for relaying restricted American technology to Iran for use in a national Internet monitoring system. The explosion may have started last week when the aptly named website The Smoking Gun reported that the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the sale. The FBI has not confirmed the investigation, but The Smoking Gun has posted an affidavit that makes fun reading because it includes grubby details of the alleged covering-up. Much of it has the desperate, furtive feel of the third reel of an Abel Ferrara film (or, apropros of the lunar landing discussion above, a Peter Hyams film). You can feel the options narrowing as they talk through them. I don’t know how this situation will turn out, but I do know this: As bad as ZTE looked for shipping US surveillance gear to Iran, they look worse for the discussion of the coverup.
Two other thoughts about this case. First, the FBI case is apparently based on the deposition of a young, American lawyer who was in ZTE’s employ. I find myself reminded of something I heard from a relative who was once highly placed in the empire of a wealthy Hong Konger: White people don’t handle the money. One wonders how much trust ZTE will invest in its white people after this.
Second, the organization that should be most annoyed about this alleged coverup isn’t the US government, the FBI or Internet-freedom activists; it’s ZTE’s Chinese competitor and Shenzhen neighbor, Huawei. Huawei has been busting its ass through an extensive lobbying and PR campaign to impress US politicians and regulators with its trustworthiness and thus extend its limited access to the huge American market. So far it has met with conspicuously limited success not least because US politicians stubbornly refuse to trust it due to its, well, Chineseness.
Huawei and ZTE are different companies, and illegal shipments to Iran aren’t spy-friendly backdoors in routers, but it will be very easy for American politicians and lobbyists to conflate the two Chinese companies and use this situation against Huawei as well. After all, they’re both giant, state-linked Chinese telecoms equipment companies. From an American political point of view, both carry all the reputation baggage that comes with the pedigree. They’re suspected –sometimes with a dose of hysteria– of being instruments of Chinese policy and possibly vectors for cyberwar attacks. If one is caught with an uncapped sharpie…well, the argument will be, you do the math.
Given the effort its expended over the last few years and the collateral damage it is likely to sustain if the investigation of ZTE’s alleged coverup gathers steam, perhaps Huawei should send its PR and Lobbying bill for the last few years to ZTE. And as for the rest of us? I’m sure we’re all very disappointed.