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Ex-GE employee sentenced for stealing trade secrets for China

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen on Tuesday called the espionage case against Xiaoqing Zheng "textbook economic espionage." UPI/Kevin Dietsch
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen on Tuesday called the espionage case against Xiaoqing Zheng "textbook economic espionage." UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo

Jan. 3 (UPI) -- A U.S. federal judge has sentenced a former GE employee to two years' imprisonment for conspiring to steal trade secrets from his company for China, the latest U.S. conviction over Beijing corporate espionage.

U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino handed down the sentence to Xiaoqing Zheng, 59, of Niskayuna, N.Y., on Tuesday following a four-week trial that ended March 31.

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Zheng is also sentenced to pay a $7,500 fine and serve one year of supervised release.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division described Zheng's case as a textbook example of economic espionage.

"Zheng exploited his position of trust, betrayed his employer and conspired with the government of China to steal innovative American technology," Olsen said in a statement following sentencing on Tuesday.

"The Justice Department will hold accountable those who threaten our national security by conniving to steal valuable trade secrets on behalf of a foreign power."

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Zheng, a engineer specializing in sealing technology with GE, was charged in a 14-count indictment in April of 2019 along with Chinese national Zhaoxi Zhang, a relative of Zheng's and the majority owner of Liaoning Tianyi Aviation Technology.

According to the court documents, Zheng, who worked at GE Power & Water in Schenectady, N.Y., from 2008 until his arrest in the summer of 2018, also had an aviation parts supply business in China called Nanjing Tianyi Avi Tech Co. Ltd.

Prosecutors accused Zheng of using his position at GE to steal proprietary design models, engineering drawings, configuration files and material specifications in connection to GE gas and steam turbines, many of which he sent to Zhang in China.

The pair then used the stolen trade secrets to advance the business interests of their two companies that manufacture parts for turbines, court documents state.

Zheng was convicted by a jury in March of conspiring to commit economic espionage, but was acquitted on four counts, two counts each of economic espionage and trade secret theft. The jury also failed to reach a verdict on seven other counts.

The pair were charged during the Trump administration's now-shuttered China Initiative, which sought to clamp down on economic espionage stemming from the Asian nation.

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Though dozens of professors and professionals were charged under the program launched in 2018, some of those cases were subsequently dropped. And Olsen of the Biden administration's Justice Department announced the shuttering of the program in February under criticism it showed departmental bias.

However, the Justice Department continues to seek convictions over corporate espionage, and in November, Yanjun Xu, the first Chinese government intelligence officer to ever be extradited to the United States to stand trial, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted a year prior to several counts of economic espionage.

"American ingenuity is an integral part of the United States economic security -- it is what has guided the U.S. to become the global leader, even as China seeks to topple our sates. Xiaoqing was a Thousand Talents Program member and willingly stole proprietary technology and sent it back to the PRC," Assistant Director Alan Kohler Jr. of the FBI Counterintelligence Division said in a statement. The PRC is the initials of China's official name, the People's Republic of China.

"Let today's sentencing serve as a reminder that the FBI remains dedicated in our pursuit of those who collaborate with the People's Republic of China and steal American trade secrets."

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