A Chinese national has been convicted of spying for China and was sentenced on Wednesday to 20 years in prison for his actions. The sentencing comes as China has frequently infiltrated key U.S. industries in an effort to steal intellectual property and usurp the U.S. as the dominant global power.
A federal judge in Ohio’s Southern District sentenced 42-year-old Yanjun Xu to 20 years in prison on Wednesday for charges of economic espionage and theft of trade secrets. The sentencing comes four years after he was initially charged and a year after a jury found Xu guilty of attempting to steal aviation industry trade secrets.
According to federal prosecutors, Xu was a career intelligence officer with China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). Xu allegedly began working in the Chinese intelligence service in 2003 and worked his way up to the rank of deputy division director.
Xu allegedly used multiple aliases like Qu Hui and Zhang Hui, as well as front companies and universities, to deceive aviation industry employees in an effort to get them to divulge industry information. The scheme often involved inviting those industry employees to travel to China to give presentations.
Prosecutors say MSS agents would access guest’s hotel rooms to hack or copy information on their computers while Xu took the aviation industry employees out to dinner. Prosecutors said this scheme was carried out in coordination with the MSS and Chinese aviation entities.
Xu also openly talked about efforts to both commercial aviation and U.S. military information.
As part of this espionage scheme, Xu made contact with an Ohio-based employee of the General Electric Aviation (GE Aviation). The employee went to China in 2017 and met Xu but after returning to the U.S. he handed off communications with Xu to FBI agents who posed as the GE Aviation employee.
By February of 2018, Xu and the undercover FBI agents began discussing meeting in Europe for a handoff of information. Xu traveled to Belgium with cash and a pictures of the GE Aviation employee and was arrested during the planned meetup. Xu was subsequently extradited to the U.S. to face trial.
Prosecutors also brought evidence at trial that Xu recruited insiders within a French aircraft engine manufacturer’s facility in China. Xu used one of these recruits to plant malware on a computer belonging to a French employee who frequently traveled to China. Prosecutors said the goal of this spying effort was to infiltrate the company’s computer networks in France.
Xu’s arrest and prosecution has led to the conviction of another Chinese spy.
Xu served as a handler for Ji Chaoqun, who was convicted of conspiring to act as an agent of the Chinese government in September. Ji arrived in the U.S. in 2013 and joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 2016 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. The MAVNI program allows the U.S. Armed Forces to recruit certain legal aliens whose skills are considered vital to the national interest.
Prosecutors were able to track Ji down after capturing Xu and going through his communications.