Chinese intelligence officer sentenced to 20 years in prison in espionage case

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Washington — A Chinese intelligence officer convicted of economic espionage and stealing aviation trade secrets from companies including General Electric (GE) was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison on Wednesday, one year after a jury in Ohio convicted him on all counts.

Yanjun Xu, a deputy division director of China’s intelligence arm, known as the Ministry of State Security (MSS), was indicted in 2018. He was accused of identifying specific aviation technology sought by the Chinese government and working with other MSS officers to co-opt executives of foreign technology companies and work to extract the desired information from them. 

At times using aliases and acting under the guise of Chinese universities, Xu tried to steal technology related to GE Aviation’s composite aircraft engine fan, which has not been duplicated by any other company in the world, the Justice Department said. Prosecutors said he arranged and paid for apparently unwitting industry experts to travel to China in an attempt to obtain the information. 

One GE employee who was in contact with Xu and his co-conspirators gave a presentation at a Chinese university in 2017 which investigators said included details regarding engines that were designed and produced by the American company. 

Following the GE employee’s return to the U.S., according to the government’s sentencing memorandum, the FBI took over communications between the employee and Xu to infiltrate the operation. It was during this time that investigators say the MSS officer asked the American employee to “betray” his company, writing under the guise of the Chinese university, “I will touch base with the scientific research department here to see what technology is desired and I will let you know what to prepare,” in January of 2018. Days later he again wrote, “Try your best to collect and we can talk by then. Domestically, there is more focused [sic] on the system code.”

“Xu engaged in a wide reaching pattern of deception, computer hacking, and theft,” prosecutors wrote in court documents ahead of Wednesday’s sentencing. “He has made a career out of committing these crimes against foreign companies, all with the assumption that he would never face consequences for his actions.” 

Xu’s crimes came to a head in 2018, when he was arrested in Belgium and later extradited to the U.S. to face the indictment. He was ultimately convicted for the “heavyhanded extortion” of a U.S. employee “to achieve his illegal objectives,” the government argued.

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 25 years behind bars, a lengthy sentence for the first Chinese intelligence officer ever to be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial. Xu’s crimes, they said, must be punished to deter others from carrying out similar schemes. 

But in a pre-sentencing memorandum of their own, Xu’s legal team contended the government’s stance “far exceeds sentences received by other individuals convicted of crimes involving the theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.”

The Chinese official, they argued, was serving his country as he carried out the scheme. Describing Xu as a father, husband, and dedicated family man, defense attorneys wrote the defendant, “was working to further his country’s interests. He was not a rogue operator, or criminal mastermind or, in fact, in any way operating outside the scope of his employment.” 

“The government suggests that the prosecution and harsh punishment of one alleged Chinese intelligence officer will ‘deter’ an entire nation, an entire government structure, an entire political agenda,” Xu’s attorneys said, urging the judge to send him away for 55 months. 

Xu was also accused of acting as the handler for a recently convicted MSS agent in Chicago, and directing an asset to install malware against a French aerospace manufacturer. 

After Judge Timothy Black of Ohio sentenced Xu to 20 years in prison on Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the sentence “demonstrates the seriousness of those crimes and the Justice Department’s determination to investigate and prosecute efforts by the Chinese government, or any foreign power, to threaten our economic and national security.”

China’s predatory trade tactics and accusations of espionage have come under increased scrutiny by federal investigators and the FBI in recent years. On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a House panel that China poses the greatest long-term threat to American national security, saying Chinese agents will employ numerous illegal tactics to surpass the U.S. as a superpower on the world stage. 

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