A federal jury on Monday convicted a former Chicago graduate student of spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on scientists and engineers in the U.S. with valuable knowledge about aerospace technology, artificial intelligence, and even aircraft carriers.
After a two week trial, the jury convicted Ji Chaoqun, 31, of conspiracy to act as an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security without notifying the U.S. Attorney General, acting as a spy in the U.S., and lying on a government form about his contacts with foreign agencies.
The jury, which deliberated about six hours over two days, acquitted Ji of two other wire fraud counts alleging he lied to the U.S. Army when he applied to become a reservist in 2016.
Ji, who has been in custody since his arrest four years ago, kept his hands folded on the defense table and appeared to have no reaction as he listened to the verdict on headphones through a Chinese interpreter.
The more serious spying count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman did not immediately set a sentencing date.
After the verdict, Ji’s lead attorney, Damon Cheronis, said in a statement they were “pleased that the jury returned not guilty verdicts on both wire fraud counts.”
“It was a complicated case and luckily we live in a country where a jury gets to decide these issues,” Cheronis wrote in an email to the Tribune. “While we are obviously disappointed with the remaining counts, we respect the jury process and the hard work they put into deciding this case.”
Ji’s case was profiled in the Tribune in 2019 as a symbol of a growing area of worry for U.S. authorities: a sophisticated and far-flung mission by the Chinese government to have spies and foreign agents steal ideas and technology from firms and defense contractors across the country.
The charges against Ji were part of a wider national security investigation that also led to the arrest and unprecedented extradition of his handler, Xu Yangjun, a senior intelligence officer in China’s main spy agency.
Xu, the first Chinese spy ever brought to the U.S. to face criminal prosecution, was convicted in federal court in Cincinnati last November of trying to steal trade secrets from military contractor GE Aviation. He is scheduled to be sentenced later this year.
The charges against Ji alleged that he was targeted by agents with the MSS in China shortly before coming to Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering at IIT, a small private school just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway that had forged educational ties with Chinese universities and colleges.
After traveling back to China during the winter break, Ji was “wined and dined” by MSS handlers and eventually given a top secret contract where he swore an oath of allegiance to the agency’s cause, agreeing to “devote the rest of my life to state security,” according to prosecutors.
A photo snapped surreptitiously by Ji of the contract was later found on on his cell phone, though it was unsigned. Ji also took photos of $6,000 in cash given to him by the MSS for living expenses in the U.S., prosecutors said.
Five days later, Ji returned to Chicago and immediately reached out to a friend who was studying aeronautics and aviation at George Washington University in Washington D.C., Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas said in his closing argument to the jury last week.
Ji sent the friend photos of the contract and cash and offered to share some of his “operational expenses” with him if he helped him track down leads for the MSS, Jonas said.
Jonas told jurors that sending his friend the photos was “maybe not the brightest thing” for Ji to do, but it didn’t make him any less of a spy.
“There’s no requirement that you find that he be James Bond,” Jonas said.
Ultimately, Ji was able to gather background reports on eight U.S. citizens, all born in Taiwan or China, with careers in science and technology industry, including several who specialized in the aerospace field. Seven worked for U.S. defense contractors, according to prosecutors.
Ji sent the reports — which were publicly available for purchase — back to his handlers in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled as sets of “midterm exam” questions, according to Jonas.
Ji graduated from IIT in 2015, and the following year, enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve through a program to recruit foreigners who have skills considered vital to the national interest.
Prosecutors alleged Ji concealing during his Army background check that he had been in contact with the intelligence officers, but the jury found him not guilty on both of those counts.
The jury convicted him, however, of giving false answers on a government background form that asked if he’d ever had any contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including MSS.
In his closing argument Friday, Cheronis noted that Ji was never accused of stealing any government secrets, just gathering background that anyone wanting to research a neighbor or potential date could pay for on the internet.
He also portrayed Ji as an unwitting pawn in a much larger game of international espionage, one played with equal aplomb by the same U.S. government that was now pointing fingers.
Cheronis said the system is designed to exploit idealistic young college students like Ji, “kids who have enough trouble figuring out what they’re going to do with their lives.”
He pointed to the testimony of prosecution expert James Olson, the former Chief of Counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency, who walked the jury through what Olson referred to as “the Great Game” of spying.
Olson called it “eight-dimensional chess” and acknowledged that men like him were experts in exploiting “the dark side of human nature.”
Cheronis said Olson talked about older, more experienced players “preying on college kids like he was talking about a fish.”
“(Ji) is actually a human being. But he’s a trophy for guys like Olson,” Cheronis said.
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