A former graduate student in Chicago was sentenced to eight years in prison Wednesday for spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on engineers and scientists in the United States.
Ji Chaoqun, a Chinese national who came to the US to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2013 and later enlisted in the US Army Reserves, was arrested in 2018.
The 31-year-old was convicted last September of acting illegally as an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and of making a material false statement to the US Army.
According to the Justice Department, Ji was tasked with providing an intelligence officer with biographical information on individuals for potential recruitment as Chinese spies. The individuals included Chinese nationals who were working as engineers and scientists in the US, some of whom worked for American defense contractors.
Ji’s spying was part of an effort by Chinese intelligence to obtain access to advanced aerospace and satellite technologies being developed by US companies, the Justice Department said in a statement.
In 2016, a year after graduation, Ji enlisted in the US Army Reserves under a program in which foreign nationals can be recruited if their skills are considered “vital to the national interest.”
In his application to join the program, Ji falsely stated that he had not had any contact with a foreign government within the past seven years. He also failed to disclose his relationship and contacts with Chinese intelligence officers in a subsequent interview with a US Army officer, according to the Justice Department.
In 2018, Ji had several meetings with an undercover US law enforcement agent who was posing as a representative of China’s MSS. During these meetings, Ji said that with his military identification, he could visit and take photos of “Roosevelt-class” aircraft carriers. Ji also explained that once he obtained his US citizenship and security clearance through the Army Reserves program, he would seek a job at the CIA, FBI or NASA, the Justice Department said, citing evidence at trial.
Ji intended to perform cybersecurity work at one of those agencies so that he would have access to databases, including those that contained scientific research, the Justice Department said in the statement.
Ji was working at the direction of Xu Yanjun, a deputy division director at the Jiangsu provincial branch of the MMS, the statement said.
Xu, a career intelligence officer, was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for plotting to steal trade secrets from several US aviation and aerospace companies. Xu was also the first Chinese spy extradited to the US for trial, after being detained in Belgium in 2018 following an FBI investigation.