Chinese Spy Gets 20 Years for Aviation Espionage Plot

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A prolific Chinese spy who tried to steal secrets from US aviation companies has been jailed for 20 years, in a first for the Department of Justice (DoJ).

Yanjun Xu, 42, rose to become deputy division director at the Ministry of State Security (MSS) intelligence agency. However, he was arrested in Belgium in 2018 after being lured there by an FBI agent posing as a GE Aviation employee that Xu was cultivating to provide Beijing with information.

Xu was the first ever Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited to the US, according to the DoJ.

The MSS spy reportedly played a key role in a sophisticated, multi-year plot to steal trade secrets from western aerospace firms that helped the country build its C919 commercial airliner, among other things.

Xu used aliases, front companies and universities to trick aviation employees and solicit information, sometimes recruiting them to travel to China under the guise of giving a presentation at a university, which they were paid for.

He also worked with colleagues to hack the computers of GE Aviation employees in their hotel rooms while other MSS officials took the staffers out to dinner, according to the DoJ.

In addition, Xu recruited insiders at a French aircraft engine manufacturer’s plant in China who were willing to spy for Beijing, and planted malware on the laptop of a French executive who frequently travelled to the facility.

Xu also directed Chaoqun Ji, who entered the US on an F-1 student visa, to recruit individuals in the US. In 2016 Ji was allowed to join the US army and apparently stated his plan was to obtain top security clearance. He was convicted in 2022.

“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 US 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 US workers.”

A federal jury in Cincinnati convicted Xu on all counts: conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, attempted economic espionage and attempted trade secret theft.

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