Who is Yanjun Xu, first Chinese intelligence officer convicted of plotting to steal US aviation trade secrets?
New Delhi: In a move that will surely shake up the world and set a positive precedence for the future, a federal jury in Cincinnati has found a Chinese intelligence officer guilty of conspiring to and attempting to commit economic espionage and stealing trade secrets. The Chinese intelligence officer named Yanjun Xu is a deputy director of a foreign intelligence branch of China’s Ministry of State Security and was the first Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited to the US and convicted. Xu was extradited from Belgium in 2018 and his trial began on October 19, 2021.
It has long been speculated and known that the Chinese government carries out espionage operations to gain trade secrets, technology, and expertise from other advanced countries like the US and European countries. Huawei, a telecom giant from China has repeatedly been exposed for using underhanded means for gaining access to restricted technology and is one of the reasons why Huawei and ZTE have been blacklisted by many nations across the globe.
The reason that this arrest and conviction was such a hallmark is that this is the first Chinese intelligence official to be extradited to the United States for trial and convicted and also this arrest directly ties the Chinese government to espionage operations and will likely be used for decades as proof of the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to steal technology from other nations.
The case against Xu goes back to 2013. According to official records Xu used multiple aliases to try and acquire company secrets from multiple companies across the world that are recognized as leaders in the field of aviation.
Following what US courts described as typical Chinese espionage behavior, Xu would identify individuals who worked for aviation companies and try to convince them to come to China on the pretense of giving a presentation at a university. These individuals were paid by Xu, on top of their travel being covered. Finally, Xu’s attempt to steal technology from GE Aviation about their composite aircraft engine fan was what led to his downfall and subsequent arrest.
As per US court documents, Xu planned to coax a GE employee to come to China so that he could steal GE technology but ultimately Xu decided to meet the employee in Belgium in 2018 and that is when Xu was ultimately arrested.
In the last couple of years, Chinese espionage against the US increased by a significant amount and this arrest has sent both the US and China into a flurry of activity. According to experts, there exists the possibility that the US will be able to extract crucial information from Xu during his incarceration, on the flip side, the Chinese government will want to get Xu back and this might lead to them imprisoning US citizens in China under false allegations to negotiate with the US. This is something that China has done previously with the arrest of Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in an attempt to get Canada to release Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and prevent her extradition to the US.
While testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that China represents one of the most severe threats to the globe in terms of economic security and democratic values. Until this conviction, US intelligence agencies struggled to provide concrete evidence to US policymakers, but this arrest changes that and unquestioningly ties the Chinese Communist Party to global attempts to steal technology from other nations.
The Chinese intelligence community is also likely to be very jarring. The arrest is an indication that tried and tested methods of Chinese espionage will not work anymore and will be paranoid that the next scientist or researcher they try to recruit will be the Chinese intelligence services have been thrown into disarray and will try to devise new methods through which they can get similar espionage results. The Chinese government has already come out and has denied the claims that Xu was trying to steal trade secrets, and instead calls the accusations pure fabrications. But the case against Xu is simply just too strong and evidence is damning, China has thus till now not fought too hard for a reversal of the judgment cause that might lead to further publicity and embarrassment.
For years it has been known that the Chinese use espionage tactics to steal technology and state secrets. The goal of Chinese espionage is the development of China’s industries and the theft of foreign wealth. To achieve that goal, the Chinese Communist Party employs government agencies, organizations, commercial entities, individual entrepreneurs, Chinese expatriates, Chinese and foreign researchers to fulfill its goals.
The foundation of Chinese intelligence operations uses the whole of society as a foundation and instead of relying on standard spy-fare, (encrypted communication, dead drops, etc.) it relies on its sheer volume of espionage operations conducted by all manner of citizen and private enterprises like Huawei. Chinese law itself supports espionage, private companies and individuals are required by law to provide information and assistance to Chinese intelligence operations and could face severe punishment if they do not help.
But the arrest of Xu marks a turning point, as it will help the US and other countries to understand the techniques, the tactics, the capabilities, the intent, and the tradecraft of the Chinese spies and hopefully identify and stop the theft of secrets and technology globally.