A Chinese former graduate student was sentenced in Chicago on Wednesday to eight years in prison for spying for China.
31-year-old Ji Chaoqun, who is also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, was “acting illegally within the United States as an agent of the People’s Republic of China,” the U.S. said.
Beijing has yet to respond to the decision.
Ji was convicted last September on three counts including gathering “biographical information on certain individuals for possible recruitment” by the Chinese state security apparatus.
“The individuals included Chinese nationals who were working as engineers and scientists in the United States, some of whom worked for U.S. defense contractors,” the department said in a press release.
Ji came to the U.S. to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2013 and was arrested in 2018.
His case is part of China’s efforts to “obtain access to advanced aerospace and satellite technologies being developed by companies within the U.S.,” according to the Justice Department.
Court documents said the former student worked at the direction of high-level intelligence officers in the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, a provincial department of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s powerful intelligence and security agency.
He is known to have made an oath to “devote the rest of my life to state security,” it was revealed at his trial last year.
Ji was targeted by MSS agents before he left China for the States in 2013 and, while in Chicago, he was working under Xu Yanjun, an MSS Deputy Division Director.
Xu, the first Chinese government intelligence officer ever to be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for espionage, was to 20 years in prison. He was charged with targeting American aviation companies, recruiting employees to travel to China, and soliciting their proprietary information.
Xu was arrested in Belgium in 2018 following an FBI investigation.
China protested against his sentencing, calling allegations made by the court “pure fabrications,” and demanding that the U.S. “ensure the rights and interests of the Chinese citizen.”
Recruiting engineers and scientists
At Ji Chaoqun’s trial in September, 2022, prosecutors said he succeeded to gather background reports on eight U.S. citizens, all born in Taiwan or China, with careers in science and technology industries, including several who specialized in the aerospace field.
Seven of them worked for U.S. defense contractors.
Ji sent his reports back to his handlers “in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled as sets of ‘midterm exam’ questions.”
A year after graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve through a program to recruit foreigners who have skills considered vital to the national interest.
The U.S. military normally only allows U.S. citizens or permanent residents to join its ranks but this program, called ‘The Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest,’ or MAVNI, makes it possible for the likes of Ji to enlist.
MAVNI has been on hold since 2016.
According to the Justice Department, Ji’s intention was to obtain U.S. citizenship and security clearance through the MAVNI program and then seek a job at the CIA, FBI or NASA.
“Ji intended to perform cybersecurity work at one of those agencies so that he would have access to all their databases, including databases that contained scientific research,” it said.
Analysts said cases like those of Ji and Xu are likely to be “the tip of the iceberg” and the number of suspected Chinese spies could be hundreds if not thousands.
“Ji Chaoqun was apparently caught due to sloppy tradecraft and taking too many chances – as was his controller, Xu Yanjun,” said Matthew Brazil, Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
“The FBI regularly makes the claim that there are more cases that they can handle, and though it's difficult to prove that, historical evidence suggests it is true,” Brazil said.
The co-author of the book “Chinese Communist Espionage’ said that during the revolution, Chinese Communist intelligence trained thousands of people to infiltrate Japanese-controlled, and Chinese Nationalist-controlled areas.
The large number of cases uncovered by the FBI “indicates that the CCP's previous policy of massive infiltration continues to this day,” he told RFA, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
“So the FBI needs more resources, as well as better training,” Brazil said.
“Their agents in the field should be competent linguists who can cultivate informants face-to-face, question suspects in the language, and perhaps make better cases,” he added. “Congress should have mandated and funded such an effort a decade ago.”
Last February, after much controversy and criticism, U.S. authorities decided to end a program initiated in 2018 called the China Initiative, which was aimed at catching and prosecuting spies at U.S. universities and industries.
“It sounded like a good idea when the program was announced,” said Matthew Brazil.
Under the China Initiative the FBI caught some “big fish” such as Charles Lieber, the Harvard Chemistry professor who was selling nanotechnology secrets with military applications to China.
But the China Initiative seems also to have led to overzealous prosecutions, leading to its criticism and, subsequently, closure.
According to analysts, investigations into some cases under the China Initiative still continue. (KB/RFA)