Yang Xu, a 42-year-old career intelligence officer for the Chinese government, was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of ButlerCounty Sherif's Office/Website
Nov. 16 (UPI) -- A federal court in Cincinnati, Ohio, handed down a 20-year sentence Wednesday to the first Chinese government intelligence officer to ever be extradited to the United States to face trial.
The sentencing of Yang Xu, a 42-year-old career intelligence officer for the Chinese government, is being heralded by federal authorities as "historic" and as a warning to foreign governments that the United States will not tolerate espionage committed against its private sector.
Xu was convicted Nov. 5, 2021, on charges of attempting to steal aviation information through contacting leaders in the field, including GE Aviation.
Through front companies Xu would recruit them to visit China to give presentations before universities. Prosecutors said Xu and other intelligence agents would then enter the hotel rooms of their invited guests while they were being taken out to dinner and either hack or copy their computers.
"As proven at trial, the defendant, a Chinese government intelligence officer, used a range of techniques to attempt to steal technology and proprietary information form companies based in both the U.S. and abroad," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
"Today's sentence demonstrates the seriousness of those crimes and 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."
Prosecutors said Xu's crimes included attempts to steal technology related to GE Aviation's exclusive composite aircraft engine fan module for China.
In March 2017, an employee at GE Aviation in Cincinnati was solicited to speak at a Chinese university. Two months later, the employee traveled to the Asian nation with all expenses and air travel paid by Xu to give a presentation in early June.
Following the trip, the FBI took over communications with Xu while posing as the unidentified employee.
In January the following year, Xu asked the employee for proprietary information about the design of the fan module, and was sent a two-page document that included a warning about the disclosure of the information.
The next month, Xu asked the employee to meet him in Europe during a business trip. Xu asked the employee to also send him a copy of the file directory of his company-issued computer.
On April 1, Xu traveled to Belgium with cash and pictures for the employee and was arrested.
Authorities also said Ji Chaoqun, a former U.S. Army reservist who was convicted late September of acting as an illegal agent for China, was working under the direction of Xu.
Xu was Ji's handler and directed him to collect information on people to potentially recruit to work for them. According to prosecutors, Ji gave Xu the names of at least nine potential American recruits.
Ji joined the U.S. Army in May 2016 via a program that permitted legal foreigns with Chinese fluency into the military with plans to quickly obtain citizenship and top-secret security clearance.
During Xu's trial, other evidence showed Xu had also recruited people from within a French aircraft engine manufacturer's facility in China willing to spy on his behalf.
"The Chinese government tasked an officer of its spy service to steal U.S. trade secrets so it could advance its own commercial and military aviation efforts, at the expense of an American company," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. "This brazen action shows that the Chinese government will stop at nothing to put our companies out of business to the detriment of U.S. workers."
Xu was arrested and charged under the now-shuttered Justice Department's China Initiative launched in 2018 by the Trump administration with an aim to confront economic espionage committed by the Asian nation.
The case has previously been highlighted by the Department of Justice as an example of how China is employing spy craft typically used to steal government classified documents against the United States' private sector to steal U.S. technology and information.
The program was replaced amid criticism of departmental bias for an expanded strategy for countering nation-state threats looking at not only China but Russia, Iran and North Korea, which have become more aggressive in this area.
"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 said.