Chinese engineer sentenced to 8 years in U.S. prison for spying

A former Chicago graduate student in electrical engineering was sentenced Wednesday to eight years in prison for spying for the Chinese government.

Ji Chaoqun, 31, a Chinese national, was convicted last year of acting as an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security and making a material false statement to the U.S. Army.

He had come to the U.S. to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2013. In 2016, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves under the Military Accession Vital to the National Interest program, which allowed the U.S. Armed Forces to recruit foreign workers whose skills were considered vital to the national interest, the Justice Department said in a news release Wednesday.

During that time, Ji was tasked by Xu Yanjun, a deputy division director within the Ministry of State Security, with providing an intelligence officer with biographical information on people who could potentially be recruited as spies for China, according to the Justice Department. Those identified as potential recruits included Chinese nationals working as engineers and scientists in the U.S., the department said.

“This tasking was part of an effort by the Jiangsu provincial department to obtain access to advanced aerospace and satellite technologies being developed by companies within the U.S.,” the Justice Department said.

Chinese engineer Ji Chaoqun. Facebook

Xu was already sentenced last year to 20 years in federal prison after being convicted in the Southern District of Ohio of conspiracy and attempting to commit economic espionage and theft of trade secrets.

In his application to participate in the Military Accession Vital to the National Interest program, Ji had falsely said he had not had any contact with a foreign government within a seven year period, according to the Justice Department. And in a subsequent interview with a U.S. Army officer, he again did not disclose his relationship and contacts with a foreign intelligence officer, the department said.

Evidence at trial further showed that in 2018, Ji had meetings with an undercover law enforcement agent who was posing as a representative of the Ministry of State Security. During those meetings, he said that he could use his military identification to visit and take photos of “Roosevelt-class” aircraft carriers, the Justice Department said.

He also planned to seek a job at the CIA, FBI or Nasa and intended to pursue cybersecurity work at one of those agencies so he could access their databases, including databases containing scientific research, it said.

U.S. intelligence officials have previously expressed concerns over U.S. universities being a soft target for China’s spies.

Ji’s initial arrest was part of an FBI investigation in Ohio into recruitment by Chinese spies over the past year.

The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

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