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Chinese spy gets eight-year prison sentence

By Sarah May on
 January 27, 2023

A 31-year-old former engineering student at the Illinois Institute of Technology was sentenced this week to eight years in prison for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, as NBC News reports.

The significant penalty handed down to Chinese national Ji Chaoqun comes on the heels of his conviction last year on charges of working as an agent of the Ministry of State Security and of making a false statement to the U.S. Army.

Spy scheme explained

A press release from the Department of Justice outlined in detail how Ji's unlawful activities in the United States unfolded after his 2013 arrival in Illinois.

Having enrolled in the aforementioned school to study electrical engineering, Ji subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves.

Ji's affiliation with the American military was made possible by a program known as Military Accession Vital to the National Interest, an initiative aimed at assisting in the recruitment of foreign nationals thought to possess skills valuable to key priorities of the U.S. government.

While he was part of the Army Reserves, Ji was contacted by a representative of a provincial unit within the Chinese Ministry of State Security by the name of Xu Yanjun and assigned to give another intelligence officer details on individuals who might be amenable to working as spies on China's behalf, including fellow nationals who held positions as scientists and engineers inside the American aviation and aerospace industries.

Damning evidence revealed

As the Justice Department explained last fall, during a two-week trial, evidence was presented showing that when he applied to participate in the special program within the Army Reserves, Ji falsely represented that he had not been in contact with any foreign governments in the preceding five years.

In a second interview for acceptance into the program, Ji failed to disclose his relationship with Xu and that his contacts with the foreign officer were ongoing.

Further, it was exposed at trial that Ji had participated in meetings with an undercover agent claiming to be from the Ministry of State Security, and during those conversations, he suggested that he could capture photos of American aircraft carriers by using his military identification to gain access.

Perhaps even more alarming was the fact that Ji stated that after he received American citizenship and security clearances by way of his Army Reserve service, he would pursue employment with the FBI, CIA, or NASA – ideally in a cybersecurity role – and obtain access to critical scientific databases.

Xu convicted, sentenced

Notably, Xu, 42, was also convicted and sentenced last year for his role in recruiting individuals to aid in efforts to, as described by the Justice Department, “steal technology and proprietary information from companies based in both the U.S. and abroad.”

Xu, the first government intelligence officer from China to ever be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial, received a sentence of 20 years in prison.

At the time the penalty was handed down, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland stated, “Today's sentence demonstrates the seriousness” of these types of crimes as well as “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.”

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Parker for the Southern District of Ohio, where Xu was convicted, further asserted, “This case sends a clear message: we will hold accountable anyone attempting to steal American trade secrets.”

Wray issues warning

According to the BBC, FBI Director Christopher Wray cautioned last summer that China was working hard to “ransack” Western intellectual property as a means to hasten its industrial growth and to secure a dominant position in major industry sectors.

In response, Chinese officials blasted Wray for what they said amounted to a “smearing” of their country and an unnecessary “Cold War mentality.”

In the aftermath of Xu's conviction, Wray reiterated his stance, however, saying that the convicted criminal's actions demonstrated “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,” Wray added.