Yanjun Xu is the first Chinese government intelligence officer "ever to be extradited to the United States to stand trial," the Justice Department boasted in its press release. In a statement issued after his conviction, Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen called Xu "a card-carrying intelligence officer for economic espionage" and said that his activity "underscores that trade secret theft is integral to the [People's Republic of China] government's plans to modernize its industries."
A federal jury in Cincinnati convicted Xu on Nov. 5, 2021, on charges of conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, attempted economic espionage and attempted trade secret theft.
At his trial, prosecutors laid out details of Xu's network -- a large operation that included recruiting insiders at a French aerospace company and GE Aviation, as well as overseeing a Chinese national who went from graduate school to the U.S. Army Reserve -- that he ran from 2013 to 2018.
In January 2014, Xu registered a Ji Chaoqun, now 31, as a formal overseas agent of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, or MSS. By this point, Ji was already working on a master's degree in electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, according to his own court documents. He would go on to graduate in December 2015 and, under Xu's supervision, he would enlist in the Army Reserve the following May.
According to the documents in Ji's trial, the Chinese national joined as an E-4, or specialist rank,
under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, owing to his Chinese language fluency.
Along the way, Ji would lie on his security clearance paperwork -- failing to disclose his relationship with his MSS handler, Xu -- and again later, while undergoing interviews required for higher-level clearances.
"Ji's plan was to obtain his citizenship quickly by joining the U.S. military and obtain a top-secret security clearance," prosecutors said in a sentencing memo for Xu, adding that he did, in fact, apply for U.S. citizenship.
Ji ended up telling an FBI undercover agent at some point in his short Army career that he was not only willing to help MSS operatives obtain sensitive information but also to help recruit other Chinese enlistees in the MAVNI program.
"Ji reported that he had access to all military bases with his military ID and volunteered, without prompting, to take pictures of aircraft carriers for the MSS," court documents said, before adding that "he specified that he was able to freely enter Roosevelt-class, nuclear-powered, aircraft carriers."
While the U.S. Navy does not have Roosevelt-class aircraft carriers, it does have a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier called the USS Theodore Roosevelt that is stationed in San Diego, California.
Meanwhile, Xu's other operatives were busy trying to steal technology related to GE Aviation's exclusive composite aircraft engine fan module -- something "no other company in the world has been able to duplicate," according to federal prosecutors. He also directed agents in France to plant malware on the work computer of an employee of an aircraft engine manufacturer, "with the ultimate goal of being able to infiltrate the company's network in France," prosecutors said.
Xu's arrest came in April 2018 when he traveled to Belgium to meet up with a GE Aviation employee who was supplying him with information.
Meanwhile, Ji would be arrested in the fall of 2019 -- just over three years after he enlisted in the Army Reserve.
Court documents and official statements on the two men make no mention of what material Ji was able to pass along while he was serving the Army, but one press release noted that the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group -- a counterintelligence unit based in Fort Meade, Maryland, "provided valuable assistance" in investigating the case.
Ji was convicted in September on two counts related to being an agent of a foreign government, a count of making a false statement to the U.S. Army, and two counts of wire fraud. He has yet to be sentenced.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.