On November 16, an intelligence officer accused of spying for the Chinese regime was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The U.S. federal court convicted him on charges related to the theft of trade secrets and electronic espionage.

This is the first case in which a Chinese intelligence officer was extradited to stand trial in the United States.

Yanjun Xu, 42, was sentenced on November 5, 2021, by a federal court in Cincinnati and given the seriousness of the facts, prosecutors had sought a 25-year sentence. Merrick Garland, U.S. attorney general, said in a press release, “As proven at trial, the defendant, a Chinese government intelligence officer, used a range of techniques to attempt to steal technology and proprietary information based in both the U.S. and abroad.”

 “Today’s sentencing 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.”

Reports indicate that the defendant stole information from GE Aviation, a subsidiary of General Electric engaged in the aerospace industry, about a unique aircraft engine fan. The technology would benefit the Chinese regime for its civilian and military applications.

Xu served as deputy division director in China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). In 2013, he began his espionage mission by targeting the theft of trade secrets in American aviation companies. In the indictment report, prosecutors describe some of the methods used, “Xu targeted multiple employees at multiple international aviation companies over multiple years. He used aliases, front companies, and false documents. He leveraged human intelligence sources as well as cyber techniques.”

The report also recounts that Xu obtained confidential information by recruiting or deceiving ethnic Chinese employees working at the aviation companies. An excerpt from the sentencing describes his degree of involvement in the operations as a manager and supervisor, “In that role, he coordinated sophisticated and significant intelligence operations. He directed assets and recruited co-opted employees. He supervised and directed fellow spies at the MSS in these operations, and he coordinated outreach with counterparts at AVIC and COMAC, the intended recipients of his spycraft. The 3-level adjustment is appropriate because Xu was a manager and supervisor within the conspiracy.” 

One of his agents was Ji Chaoqun. He was convicted in September by a Chicago court of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government.

The GE Aviation heist was not Xu’s only mission, and his methods for stealing information diversified, as did his targets.

Xu worked together with MSS agents to hack or copy information from the computers of aviation company employees traveling to China. Based on deception, Xu would invite the workers to travel to China by paying their expenses. Once at the hotel, and while they dined with MSS members, other agents would enter their rooms to steal the information.

The espionage work also took place against companies in other countries. As in the case of the Safran Group, a French manufacturer and GE Aviation partner. 

On Xu’s orders, his agents inside the company targeted a French Safran employee who often traveled to the company’s facilities in China. They planted malware on the employee’s computer to infiltrate Safran’s network in France. 

The same modus operandi was being attempted to attack GE Aviation, but something didn’t go as planned.

Hunted hunter

A 41-year-old GE aviation engineer involved in jet engine design and analysis received an offer from Xu to make a presentation in China. Paid travel costs plus $3,500 convinced the employee.

The engineer, of Chinese origin, did not inform his company that he planned to make a presentation in China on “Aerospace Composite Structure Design Analysis and Manufacturing Technology Development,” much less that he would be bringing five confidential documents, possibly considered trade secrets. He lied to his co-workers that he was going to a family wedding.

On the day of the presentation in China, June 2, 2017, the engineer met Qu Hui, one of Xu’s aliases, for lunch. 

Once at Nanjing Aeronautics and Astronautics University to do his work, officials at the facility told him there were compatibility issues between the projector and his computer, so a university employee placed a USB in the engineer’s laptop where the confidential documents were archived.

The trip to China raised the suspicions of authorities and a few months after his return the FBI executed a search warrant at the engineer’s home. After taking his affidavit, he agreed to cooperate with the investigation. 

Some time later, the engineer received another offer to travel to China. This time Xu was more specific about the material he was looking for, information about engine production and details of the fan casing. They then agreed to meet in Belgium. 

When Xu arrived on April 1, 2018, in the Saint Catherine district of Brussels for the appointment, it was not the engineer who met him, but Belgian police and FBI agents, who immediately handcuffed him.

The spy was held for 6 months in Belgium before being extradited to the United States to stand trial.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said to the press, “This case is just the latest example of the Chinese government’s continued attacks on American economic security and, by extension, our national security.

 “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.”

GE Aviation produces the engines for several U.S. military aircraft, including the F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet. Most recently, it participated in the engine upgrade of the world’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-35 “Lightning.”

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