Passengers board subway trains at the Naval Yard-Ballpark Metro Station, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, part of the public transit network for Washington.

Passengers board subway trains at the Naval Yard-Ballpark Metro Station, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, part of the public transit network for Washington. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

China Might Be Bugging US Subways — But There’s a Bigger Problem

Years of neglecting public infrastructure has undercut the U.S. manufacturing base.

Transit officials in Washington, D.C., are concerned that their next subway cars might be bugged.

This was the revelation on the front page of the Washington Post recently. Cybersecurity experts wonder: If a state-owned Chinese company wins a contract to supply the city’s Metro system with new cars, might they come with devices installed to surveil U.S. public officials?

Worse, might they be programmed to stop working, crash, or even shut down the entire system?

Metro officials will try to engineer their contract to prevent all this. But why can’t they solve the problem by simply buying American?

The answer is this: No U.S. company makes them.

A rail industry op-ed in Defense One had flagged this problem a month earlier, citing the White House’s concern about a “surprising level of foreign dependence on competitor nations” in transportation manufacturing. China’s “Made in China 2025” industrial policy charts an aggressive course to dominate the railcar industry by 1) getting very good at building the cars and 2) subsidizing their industry to undercut prices.

Among the possible remedies is a no-brainer: the United States should create an industrial policy of its own, one that would build up its own transit manufacturing base. Subway cars and related infrastructure aren’t just good for cities — they’re crucial for addressing larger security threats like climate change.

Unfortunately, this would go against decades of U.S. policy. For 80 years we've concentrated our industrial policy planning in one place: on our defense industrial base.

Production for the U.S. military is — nearly alone in the universe of U.S. manufacturing — entirely subsidized by the federal government. Military hardware exports get favored treatment when government subsidies are doled out. And weapons get the lion’s share of federal R&D money.

U.S. military contractors are now using Chinese military moves as a reason for commandeering even larger proportions of the national treasury, even though Beijing spends only  about one-third as much on defense as we do.

Meanwhile, China has been spreading its power and influence throughout the world, largely by non-military means. Leaping over the United States in its civilian manufacturing capacity, it’s investing in critical infrastructure projects across the developing world.

There’s that word: infrastructure. It seems to be the point of light that might allow us to invest a decent amount in our civilian manufacturing base.

Nearly everyone in Washington, where widespread agreement is rare, has been pledging allegiance to “infrastructure.” The American Society of Civil Engineers keeps issuing abysmal report cards on the state of our roads, water systems, transit systems. Fixing them will create a lot of jobs, which everybody wants.

But when we get into the details, our national divide reappears. Democrats want not just to repair and replace what we have, but to invest in the kinds of new systems that could save us from climate catastrophe. Here’s where reviving and creating our capacity to build great subway cars, among other mass-transit options, would come in. (So would the infrastructure to provide clean power across the nation, and, if we’re serious about climate change, to the rest of the world.)

Republicans’ idea of an infrastructure package disdains such investment. And at the moment, even the modest $11 billion in federal money appropriated for transit is mostly being blocked by the shutdown.

True to form, while transit gets shorted, military funding is flowing—the Pentagon's budget sailed through before the shutdown began. (Though defense contractors are taking a bit of a hit, since the agencies that approve their export licenses aren’t open for business.)

Nobody’s saying we shouldn’t invest to protect ourselves from cyber threats. But this new worry about Chinese spy devices implanted in the Metro should remind us of lessons from the Cold War. While the CIA was focused on the clandestine dramas of spycraft, it totally missed the big picture. It remained committed to hyping growing Soviet military power, right up until the Soviet Union imploded.

While we’re preoccupied by Chinese espionage and military power, and by increasing our own, we’re falling further behind in the realms of power, influence, and economic strength that we don’t take seriously — even as the existential threat of climate change keeps growing.