Update: Chinese intelligence officer, Yanjun Xu, was sentenced at Federal Court in Cincinnati to 20 years in prison. Xu, arrested in Belgium, extradited to the United States and found guilty following a jury trial in November 2021 had been awaiting sentencing.

“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. 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.”

A federal jury found Chinese Ministry of State Security intelligence operative, Yanjun Xu, guilty on two counts of conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage. The hallmark trial, the first of a Chinese intelligence officer to be arrested and extradited to the United States lays down a marker to the People’s Republic of China that intelligence operations targeting the United States has consequences, will be pursued, and ultimately carries a price.

Critics have opined that taking an intelligence officer to court puts U.S. intelligence officers at risk, and they would not be wrong. Any intelligence officer operating under non-official cover accepts such a risk, a risk which does not exist for those intelligence officers operating under cover of accredited diplomat.  During the trial, James Olson, former chief of counterintelligence within the CIA, explained, with precision the risks which Xu assumed when he traveled to  Belgium to met with General Electric Aviation engineer David Zheng, an individual he believed was in the advanced state of operational development. Xu brought money and requirements for Zheng and fully expected to leave Belgium with Zheng on board as a fully recruited confidential source for the MSS (NB: Zheng was cooperating with FBI).

Yanjun Xu’s 2018 arrest

Xu was arrested in Belgium in April 2018, extradited to the United States in October 2018, as detailed in “Chinese Intelligence Targeting of GE Aviation Reveals Chinese Mode of Operations.” The arrest of Xu,  and forensic inspection of his devices provided sufficient information to permit FBI counterintelligence to neutralize additional MSS operations an opsec screw up of grand proportions by the MSS allowing the mixing of operational activities by Xu.

Yanjun Xu compromised other MSS ops

Among those operations compromised by Xu was the case of Ji Chaogun who the MSS attempted to seed into the U.S. Army’s MAVNI program, as detailed in the  writeup of the case in 2018.   Ji, an electrical engineer, arrived in the “United States in 2013, primed and pumped to serve mother China. He obtained his masters degree, changed his status from student to lawful permanent resident, found employment in the aviation sector  and enlisted in the U.S. Army reserves, fast tracked to U.S. citizenship.”

Commentary from the Counterintelligence Community

“This conviction of a card-carrying intelligence officer for economic espionage underscores that trade secret theft is integral to the PRC government’s plans to modernize its industries,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “But this conviction also serves notice that the United States will not sit by as China, or any other nation-state, attempts to steal instead of researching and developing key technology. Instead, and with the support of our allies, we will continue to investigate, prosecute, and hold accountable those who try to take the fruits of American ingenuity illegally.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel for the Southern District of Ohio added, “Xu conspired to commit economic espionage on behalf of the Chinese government, and he tried to steal the valuable innovation and trade secrets of industry-leading American aviation technology companies. This office will continue to seek to protect American innovation and hold accountable those who attempt to steal our nation’s science and technology, regardless of status or affiliation, whether civilian, military or spy.” While Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, observed, “For those who doubt the real goals of the PRC, this should be a wakeup call; they are stealing American technology to benefit their economy and military.”

Xu’s conviction on the two counts of espionage each carry a maximum penalty of 15 years.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com