A federal court in Cincinnati sentenced the first extradited Chinese intelligence officer to 20 years in prison on Wednesday, solidifying the Department of Justice’s agenda to prosecute digital threats to national security.
Yanjun Xu, 42, was found guilty of counts of conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit trade theft, attempted economic espionage and attempted trade secret theft.
The press release announcing Xu’s conviction specifies that Xu, on behalf of the Chinese government, contacted American aviation companies’ employees to travel to China where he facilitated the solicitation of sensitive company information. General Electric Aviation’s proprietary composite aircraft engine fan module was targeted specifically in the plan to steal intellectual property.
As a former high-ranking intelligence officer within the Chinese Ministry of State Security, Xu employed aliases to obfuscate his identity and mislead U.S. aviation employees to travel to China under the pretense of giving a lecture at a university.
“This case sends a clear message: we will hold accountable anyone attempting to steal American trade secrets,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Parker of the Southern District of Ohio. “Xu conspired to steal American science and technology. Thanks to the diligent work of the FBI, GE Aviation and our trial team, he’ll spend decades in federal prison.”
Xu’s sentencing is the latest chapter in the growing tensions between the U.S. and China, particularly on the data privacy and advanced technologies front. Justice officials allege the scheme was conducted with the help of Chinese aviation entities.
“This case is just the latest example of the Chinese government’s continued attacks on American economic security—and, by extension, our national security,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The Chinese government tasked an officer of its spy service to steal U.S. trade secrets so it could advance its own commercial and military aviation efforts, at the expense of an American company. This brazen action shows that the Chinese government will stop at nothing to put our companies out of business to the detriment of U.S. workers.”
Once American aviation employees reported the incident, FBI officials commandeered communications with Xu, posing as aviation employees with access to sensitive design information.
In April 2018, Xu traveled to Belgium under the impression he would be meeting with an American aviation employee traveling with proprietary technology details, where he was then arrested by FBI agents.
“As long as the Chinese government continues to break our laws and threaten American industry and institutions, the FBI will work with its partners across the globe to bring those responsible to justice,” Wray said.
Earlier in September, a co-conspirator of Xu’s, Ji Chaoqun, was convicted on similar espionage charges.
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